Film: The Evolution of Underneath

The 'Best of Underneath' festival continues to thrive

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Graham Lienhart

Behind the Underneath: Sara Mahle and Eric Vosmeier

Forget Spider-Man 3. The Best of Underneath Cincinnati Film and Video Festival returns on Saturday.

A longtime nurturer of (mostly) area-produced independent short films and videos, Underneath's crafty creations encompass a wide range of genres, topics and techniques, all made for a fraction of what it cost to run the craft service table on the latest big-budget behemoth.

Emerging from the ashes of the Happy, Catchy, Flashy Named Motion Picture Festival back in 2001, Underneath Cincinnati has endured despite venue changes, a revolving cast of volunteers and ebbs in submission quantity and quality. Through it all, one constant remains: Sara Mahle, who has guided the endeavor since founder Phil Morehart moved to Chicago in 2002.

Underneath has evolved significantly under Mahle's guidance, ambitiously moving to quarterly presentations and adding a Best of Underneath Cincinnati screening in 2004. As someone who was around during Underneath's early days at SSNOVA, I can testify firsthand of the festival's creative growth. (Full disclosure: I was once a volunteer and have been a judge for the last two Best of Underneath festivals.) Besides Andre Hyland's consistently funny low-tech submissions — well, as long as you count his splicing of WCPO-TV newscasts into his films as a low-tech move — the early screenings were a mixed bag (both in content and form) made all the more endearing by SSNOVA's ramshackle environs.

Several factors have played into Underneath's evolution, none more important than the rapid changes in the accessibility and cost of film equipment in recent years.

"Now it's pretty easy to make something look good," Mahle says over beers at the Northside Tavern. "Now with YouTube and all these online video schools and tons of books out there, it's the hip thing — everyone wants to be a filmmaker. Everyone can go and find out how to do it fairly cheaply if not for free, get the equipment and have access to it. Which is a good and sometimes bad thing, because everyone thinks they're a filmmaker.

"But I would have to say that, overall, the quality of the submissions for Underneath has gone up dramatically. And not just technically — the storytelling and the acting have gotten a lot better. I'd like to think that some of that is because of Underneath."

Another factor is the emergence of the 48 Hour Film Project, a yearly event that has filmmaking teams create short movies over a weekend. Several of 2006 Best of Underneath's 13 shorts were originally created for the 48 Hour project, including all three of Dog Day Productions' offerings: Hereafter, Justice in Bloom and The Tao of Tom.

Known for entertaining, slickly produced shorts, Ryan Lewis and Michael Maney's Dog Day work has become a festival staple — the duo has won multiple Best of Underneath awards.

Kendall Bruns and Josh Flowers' Pizza Infinity is also a favorite, serving up two of this year's "Best of" creations, both powered by the duo's deadpan comedic approach: Mustache of Lies and Cheese Knives. Other shorts making the cut include Christian Appleby's A 1,000 Tears Too Late; Mark Hood's Chin Music; David Otting's Cycle 365; Winston Tanner's Disconnected; Eric Girgash's Enjoy Your Worries, You May Never Have Them Again; Sandykamp's Everybody Likes Ice Cream; Media Bridges'; and Bad Kitty Productions' The Inconvenient Egg.

New to this year's festivities are a round of filmmaker workshops, a sign that Mahle is looking to further expand Underneath's impact on the local film scene.

Ironically, though, the festival's future was in doubt earlier this year. Mahle went back to school, necessitating a hiatus from the series' quarterly schedule and putting this year's Best of Underneath screening in jeopardy.

Enter Eric Vosmeier, theater director for The Carnegie in Covington, and Chris Strobel, coordinator of the radio/television program at Northern Kentucky University. The duo stepped in to help Mahle not only present this year's festival at The Carnegie but also add the filmmaker workshops.

"I always wanted to do workshops involving Best of Underneath and make it a full-day festival," Mahle says, "but it always seemed like we didn't have the right venue or the right space."

Vosmeier, who also appears in each of the Dog Day films as an actor of rare comic ability, sees Underneath as a natural fit for The Carnegie, which has been branching out into a variety of arts presentations in recent years. He believes the area's film scene will continue to grow.

"The series of festivals that you're starting to see now are helping to improve the quality, plus I think there's a lot more training programs now," Vosmeier says, citing Strobel's NKU program as an example. "There are a lot more people who are training locally in the field."

And how about his acting skills?

"I'm basically there to make an ass out of myself," he says.

Mahle is excited about the next phase in Underneath's history — as long as she doesn't have to do everything herself. In keeping with Underneath's original goal, it's about building and nurturing a community of film lovers.

"The quarterly screenings have been fun, and I'd like to see them continue, but with the filmmakers themselves having a larger role in crafting and managing the events," she says. "The big 'Best of' events are great and I think, important for the region. I would like to see the festival grow into an annual, possibly weekend-long event featuring both local filmmakers and national works.

"Every city worth its salt has a film festival, and it's about time Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky got on the ball and sponsored one. It will take a group of really dedicated people and backing from the region if it's going to be done right. I would love to see that happen, and I think events like this one are a step in the right direction."

THE BEST OF UNDERNEATH CINCINNATI opens with workshops from 1-4:30 p.m. Saturday and continues with a screening at 7 p.m. at the Carnegie Visual + Performing Arts Center in Covington. An awards presentation and after-party follow. For a complete list of the day's activities, visit

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