Family Portraits: Ryan Suits

Ryan Suits is a soft-spoken man with a quirky sense of humor.

A mixed-media filmmaker, Suits has been doing innovative 3-D production way before the current craze. In 2006, he formed Atomic Cheesecake Productions as a brand for his 3-D work. I met Suits at the gay and lesbian film festival in 2008, when both of our films were screened as part of the “Made in Philadelphia” shorts program. A fellow screener for this year’s film festival, I spoke to Suits about his current projects, QFest and the scene for local filmmakers.

PGN: Tell me a little about yourself first … RS: I was born in Pottstown, which is about 40 minutes outside of Philadelphia, and attended film school at Rochester Institute of Technology. It was cold, but I liked the fact that at RIT you could study with an undefined major until you decided which track you wanted to pursue. I studied film and animation. I really enjoy doing both. I work now for TLA Video.

PGN: What was life like growing up in Pottstown? RS: It was quiet, not much to do. My parents were both nurses. I had a typical suburban upbringing, except for the fact that we lived right in the shadow of the Limerick nuclear power plant.

PGN: Yikes. I get nervous driving by that thing. Was it scary living near it? RS: A little. One time when I was in middle school, there was some kind of emergency at the plant and everyone was ordered to gather in the gymnasium in case there was a meltdown. I don’t think we ever found out what had happened. To top it off, on the other side of us was a chemical company, OxyChem. [Laughs.] We try not to go home too much! The cancer rate there is pretty high.

PGN: Which we? RS: My brother and me. I have one sibling, a younger brother. He’s going to Temple University to study music.

PGN: From whom did you get your creative side? RS: My father paints, not professionally, but he’s really good at artwork. He did all the airbrushed backdrops for the space environment in my film, “Glory to the Conquerors of Space,” that was in the 2008 film festival. My grandmother taught art for a bit, so I guess it’s in the blood.

PGN: What was your favorite thing to do as a kid? RS: I liked to draw. I wasn’t into superheroes, but I liked to draw comics. I always drew things with a narrative, which helped me when I transferred into films. I started making films when I was 12.

PGN: What was your first film? RS: I did a stop-motion film using “Star Wars” action figures. Unfortunately, I accidentally taped over it, so I have no idea if it was good or not!

PGN: What supernatural power would you want to possess? RS: I’d like to be able to change the speed of time. That way I’d be able to get more sleep!

PGN: What kinds of things do you like to do? RS: I work in stereoscopic 3-D, which is the big new thing now.

PGN: What’s that? RS: 3-D movies. It’s a pretty complicated process to do yourself, but I’ve been able to cobble together some different cameras and make it work.

PGN: There seems to be a pretty tight-knit film community in Philly. RS: Yes, it’s really a family. I’ve had the chance to work on a lot of people’s projects and, in turn, they have helped me with mine. For a person trying to get into filmmaking, it’s a good way to learn about the industry and, for more established people, a good way to get things done.

PGN: Who have you worked with? RS: I worked on Kelly Burkhardt’s film “Tremble & Spark”; Mark Erlbaum’s film “Café,” which was shot in West Philadelphia and starred Jennifer Love Hewitt and Jamie Kennedy; and I also did some graphics for Robert Gaston’s film “Flight of the Cardinal,” which is the QFest closing-night film this year.

PGN: How old were you when you came out? RS: That’s a hard question to answer. I consider myself bisexual. From an early age, my parents always made it clear to us that they would love and support me whatever my sexuality might be.

PGN: That’s great, but odd in a way. Why do you think they felt the need to clarify? RS: I had some extended family that was gay. One of my mother’s cousins was a lesbian and she was rejected by her immediate family, not invited to family functions, etc. My mother was very critical of their response. It may have stemmed from that, seeing the drama in the family and wanting us to know that we’d always be accepted no matter what. And they may have suspected something about me: I don’t really fit into the masculine gender ideal. I’m more on the androgynous zone. So coming out wasn’t anything traumatic. I was already in an environment where it was accepted. And I don’t date very much, so it’s not a subject that has come up a lot.

PGN: Outside of art, what was a favorite class? RS: Outside of art? I don’t really remember any classes outside of art. We did have a TV-news program at high school where we’d broadcast the morning announcements and sometimes do little skits. I was in charge of that and I really enjoyed it. Other than that, maybe English.

PGN: What was school like in Rochester? RS: Lots of snow. I want to say seven months out of the school year. It was very hard to go to class.

PGN: Where’s your nuclear meltdown when you need it? RS: Very true! But school was exciting. The teachers were very supportive of the students pursuing what they wanted to try. The attitude was, “This is your time to experiment and try innovative things. Be creative.” My film “Glory” was started at RIT. Another thing that influenced me was a job that I took in high school. I worked at Hollywood Video. It opened up a whole new world by allowing me access to so many films. When I went to college, I was introduced to a new level of films, independent and foreign films.

PGN: What were some of the problems getting your film done? RS: The number-one problem is money. Like a lot of beginning filmmakers, I self-finance most of my films, so I have to work full-time plus freelance jobs and try to shoot in between.

PGN: Where did your idea for “Glory to the Conquerors of Space” come from? RS: It was based on a surreal dream I had.

PGN: Space bloopers? RS: We had aliens covered in purple paint, which was tricky from the start. We couldn’t afford an airbrush machine so we had to sponge it on. After about a half an hour, the paint started to dry and crack and they started to look more like lizard people than aliens, so we had to keep reapplying. Then, we almost got kicked out of the school because I was shooting people in the nude without a teacher present. I did speak with her, and it was approved, but because she wasn’t there, they almost shut down the production.

PGN: I’d like to make the offer right now that the next time you need someone to sponge paint beautiful nude women, I will agree to volunteer my services … RS: [Laughs.] I’ll keep you in mind! The shoot was kind of cool. I shot in stop-motion style so the images were really, really clear. I also shot in 3-D.

PGN: Stop-motion? So the people had to freeze in position while you shot? RS: Yes. That way I could manipulate the images on my computer and make them twice as fabulous. I had a 3-D person on set too, so we did each shot twice.

PGN: What do you do at TLA? RS: I work in the production department. I author and encode DVDs and, sometimes during the festivals, I’ll shoot interviews with stars or filmmakers and we’ll include that with the DVD release.

PGN: So in addition to being a video store/rental agent, TLA produces and distributes films? RS: Yes, mostly films with GLBT content.

PGN: How do you like being a QFest screener? RS: It’s great: I get to watch a lot of films. I worked on shorts and got to help pick which ones were a good fit for our festival.

PGN: I screened women’s films. What I like is that you get to see a lot of things that for one reason or another just don’t fit or are not available the week of the fest. For example, a few years ago we had some amazing films from Africa, many of them dealing with the “corrective rape” problem, where they try to “cure” a woman of her homosexuality by having her raped. One woman’s father paid a whole gang to try to “cure” her. It was very powerful. RS: Yeah, there’s a lot of edgy stuff that I really enjoy, but are not right for the festival. Though I’m excited about the fact that we’re doing an “After Dark” festival this year, which runs simultaneously with QFest. If you flip your program over, there’s a whole other section with cult and horror flicks that are being shown each night.

PGN: What’s one of your favorites this year? RS: I really like “The Armoire,” which is being shown July 16 at 5 p.m. as part of the “Tales from the Closet” collection of short films. It’s a beautiful film and features some really strong performances from some very young actors. I was really impressed with them. There are still several films between now and the closer on Monday, so I hope people come out. You can see what’s playing online at QFest.com.

PGN: How did you get involved with TLA? RS: I started as a volunteer for the festival doing videography and, last year, they brought me on the staff full-time.

PGN: That’s great. The power of volunteerism. RS: Yes, so I’ve been working for TLA for about a year and, in addition to that, I’m working on my own projects and I do freelance work as an editor too. I edited the film “Straight and Butch,” which sold out on Wednesday.

PGN: What’s the hardest part of editing? RS: It’s difficult when you know something should be cut but the director really wants to hold on to it. I understand that it’s hard to let go of your work and see it on the cutting-room floor, but sometimes you just have to let go. That’s what you trust your editor for.

PGN: What was one of your biggest challenges? RS: For my thesis at RIT, I tried to shoot a musical in the beach-blanket-movie style from the ’50s. There were two main problems with it: 1) I have no musical talent or understanding of music and 2) the school was closed for the summer, so I had to beg and borrow equipment for the shoot. I’d never done a musical before and it didn’t turn out quite the way I’d hoped, but it was a fun process.

PGN: Speaking of fun, tell me about the ’stache. RS: [Laughs.] Well, when I worked at the video store, I had long hair and heard, “Excuse me, miss … ” pretty frequently, so I decided I needed something to identify me as male. I grew attached to it and haven’t been able to bring myself to shave it off.

PGN: Random question: If you were an animal, what would you be? RS: A bunny. They’re fluffy and everyone likes them. And all that’s expected of them is to lie around and be cute.

PGN: Do you talk in your sleep? RS: I’ve been told that I do. No comment.

PGN: Meat eater or vegetarian? RS: Vegetarian.

PGN: Any pets? RS: Growing up I had quite a few. I had a dog when I was a kid and a rabbit, birds and fish. I still have fish, several generations later. They like to reproduce.

PGN: Did you have a stuffed animal as a kid? RS: Yes. I had — what else? — bunny rabbits!

PGN: If you could live your life out in a movie, which would it be? RS: Hmmm, I’d say “Avatar.” The whole 3-D effect of the movie made it very immersive. Of course, I’d want to live in the part before the destruction.

PGN: Hardest part of being the B in LGBT? RS: People’s assumptions. In school, I dated a girl for a while, so everyone assumed I was straight, which kind of ruined my chances of getting a guy. And a lot of people still believe that there’s no such thing as bisexual, that you’re either attracted to guys or to girls. I was talking to a filmmaker at one of the festivals who made a comment that bisexuals didn’t exist. I didn’t know what to say except, well, I’m right here and I like both. We’re supposed to be GLBT, but it’s usually just the G and L.

PGN: If you could bring someone back to life for 30 minutes, whom would you choose? RS: Probably Federico Fellini. I was really influenced by his films. They have a very surreal and dreamlike quality that has inspired some of my work. I’d like to get into his head.

PGN: First R-rated movie you ever saw? RS: “Alive,” the movie about a rugby team that crashes in the Andes Mountains and they have to resort to cannibalism to stay alive. My parents rented it, which was a strange film to show a child.

PGN: Is that what made you a vegetarian? RS: [Laughs.] Maybe!

PGN: What do you do in your free time? RS: I don’t really have any. 3-D is really popular right now, so I’m getting a lot of calls in that area. I think there’s only one other person in Philly who’s doing 3-D work, so it keeps me pretty busy.

PGN: What’s the latest project? RS: It’s called “Plasticity.” It’s a very stylized film about choosing between individual freedom or conforming to society. It’s illustrated in the film by use of color to signify gender roles. It’s made entirely with light paintings. I have the actors in black costumes with Day-Glo paint on them and I filmed with long-exposure photography and flashlights and used stop-motion and animation to create a unique world of light and form. It screened at BeFilm in New York and won second place in the 3-D category.

PGN: What’s your connection to “The Colbert Report”? RS: They ran a “Stephen Colbert’s Make McCain Exciting Challenge,” where he posted [Sen. John] McCain giving a speech in front of a green background and the audience was encouraged to take that and make something new. I turned him into a surfer.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].