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A group of DMD filmmakers goes for the gold
in a West Philadelphia graveyard.

Neil Chatterjee EAS’01 was getting worried. It was a bitterly cold day in February, and he and Sophomore Josh Gorin and a pack of other DMD students were prowling about Woodlands Cemetery, stalking each other with guns and Samurai swords. West Philadelphians aren’t the most skittish folks in the world, but still—the sight of black-clad 20-year-olds digging up graves, pointing semi-automatic weapons, sword-fighting, and hurling sharp metal Ninja stars at each other tends to attract the wrong kind of attention. Even with two young boys dressed in Penn sweatshirts hanging around the “set.”

So for most of the shooting, whenever Chatterjee and the rest of the crew saw anyone not related to the Ninja movie approaching, they’d yell out “Red Light!” Whereupon everyone would drop their weapons and pretend to be doing something innocent, like trying to rub sensation into their frozen feet or taking the flat-lining digital camera into the running car to warm it back to life.

But as crunch-time set in, and they had to wrap up the shooting or blow the deadline, they abandoned all caution and just kept shooting their film about a gang of grave-robbers set upon by an avenging Ninja. And somehow, in a period of 15 days, they managed to conceive, plot, script-write, shoot, edit, overdub, digitally alter, and finally submit their film to Activision, a video-game publisher that was offering a $15,000 grand prize to the makers of the best Ninja-themed film.

“We got this come-on from Activision 15 days before the deadline,” says Chatterjee. “We said, ‘What the heck, we can do it.’
I didn’t sleep a lot during that time.”

Once Chatterjee came up with the film’s plot, they wrote the script in 24 hours. Before they rented the black Ninja costumes, recalls Amy Calhoun, “Neil said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we put them in white costumes and it snowed? But there’s no way I can possibly count on it snowing.’ So they rented black costumes and black weapons.”

And, of course, it snowed—a lot. “So they’re now the dumbest Ninjas in the world, because they’re standing in black costumes in the snow!” laughs Calhoun. “You can spot them a mile away! But you know, for the $400 or whatever they had to buy costumes—it worked.”

Gorin and Chatterjee, the mainstays of the film, ran into problems they could never have foreseen. “Basically, I learned that you can’t be too prepared,” says Chatterjee. “If you think you’ll start shooting in a month, you’ll start shooting in six months.”

Without divulging crucial details of plot, they also needed two young boys, which is where Harry and Blair Bodek, the sons of Hanley Bodek C’77 and grandsons of Gordon Bodek C’42, came in.

“Neil and Josh called me one day and said, ‘We need little kids, preferably, like, 8 and 11,’” recalls Calhoun. “I said, ‘I don’t purvey children—no, I don’t know any little kids.’ So I called a friend who used to work in the College and now is in SAS development, and she said, ‘I know little kids.’” Chatterjee says the young Bodeks were “great sports,” and notes that beyond just acting in the movie, they rewrote their dialogue, since they thought that the lines they were supposed to speak “didn’t sound realistic.”

The DMD crew finished the movie—without getting arrested—at a cost of $700. Every piece of sound, except for the dialogue at the end, was recorded in Chatterjee’s bedroom. At one point, he was having trouble getting the right sound-effect for a Ninja head-butting a grave-robber, so he finally he took a melon and smashed it against his chest. “It created the right noise,” he says, “but it knocked the wind out of me.”

Myriad visual details—such as recreating Japanese characters spelling out Ninja on a tombstone—had to be digitally overlaid onto the footage. “The kids who worked on it are all super-perfectionist—they didn’t want to turn it in,” says Calhoun. “They’re like, ‘No, there are still things we need to fix.’ But there was no time. By sending that in by the deadline, it taught them that in film and video and art, you can always tinker and make it better. But at a certain point you’ve just got to pull the plug.”

Two months later, they got a letter notifying them that they had won the $15,000 grand prize.

“It was a hoot,” says Chatterjee. The whole project was “just pure silliness,” he adds. “We’re not even Ninja fans.”

Those interested in seeing the Ninja Movie can do so at: (http://www.tenchuwrathofheaven.com/).

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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 09/02/03

SIDEBAR: The Chilly Scenes of Ninja
FEATURE: The Cult of DMD
By Samuel Hughes