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Coming one day to a theater near you?
Coming one day to a theater near you?

Dan Vance '97 has made an independent film in Arizona with a camera of his own design.

What do you do when you're all set to begin your filmmaking career, but the movie camera you need costs more than a Mercedes?

Dan Vance '97 came up with a one-of-a-kind answer. Literally.

The story begins four years ago. Vance, a jack-of-all-things-technological, found himself in Prescott Valley, Arizona, out of work and wondering what to do.

By chance he picked up a copy of Rebel Without a Crew by director Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids, Spy Kids II). The book chronicles Rodriguez's ingenuity making the film that launched his Hollywood career-the self-financed El Mariachi-for a paltry $7,000.

"I had been into filmmaking in the late '70s, early '80s," says Vance. "Had done some Super 8 industrial films for a company I was working for and some 16mm comedic shorts on my own. I read Rebel Without a Crew and thought, 'Why not give that a shot.' I wasn't working, and I had some spare time."

That spare time would come in handy.

Traditionally, movies are shot on expensive film using expensive film cameras and requiring expensive film processing-a few too many "expensives" for the unemployed Vance. Instead, he investigated digital. The problem? The cheapest digital camera of acceptable quality was a heart-dropping $60,000.

Luckily for Vance, the solution came in two easy parts: his life-long passion for all things technological and eBay.

A mechanical whiz practically since birth, Vance began working as an electronics technician right out of high school. For 20-odd years he bootstrapped his way up in the field. Eventually he was designing such high-tech wonders as parts for ultrasound machines. In the early 1990s, Vance decided it was time to earn a bachelor's degree in science at PSU.

That background came in handy when he decided to forego buying a $60,000 digital camera and build his own. He found parts to a medical imaging camera on eBay, added a new hard drive and built a shutter. Three months and $2,800 later, he had a digital camera that could virtually mimic the look of film. It was, he says, no big deal. Really.

Meantime, Vance needed a script. Having toyed with the idea of becoming a novelist, he now riffled through his file of story ideas. He found a brief description: The sun suddenly begins to go out, and no one knows why. A science-oriented guy begins to investigate.

"That," he says, "was all I had."

It was enough. After a year of writing and working on the camera, his science-fiction drama, Cold Day in Hell, was ready to shoot.

Prescott Valley is not near anything," says Vance. "We're a hundred miles north of Phoenix and 100 miles south of Flagstaff. The whole area has fewer than 100,000 people. So, it was quite a challenge to locate actors. My lead actor commutes up from Phoenix. The rest are local." And count Vance among those locals-he plays a CIA agent in two scenes.

After a couple of false starts, including one when a leading actress bowed out and all the shooting to that point had to be scrapped, Vance finished principal shooting in August and began to edit.

Where does he go from here? To film festivals, where, if he's lucky, he'll interest Hollywood types trolling for the next big thing. And if he's really lucky, Cold Day in Hell may be coming one day to a theater near you. Until then, Vance posts the film's progress and clips at

Making a movie is an enormous undertaking. Getting it noticed by Hollywood is even tougher. But for people who love the silver screen, the reasons for doing it are simple. As Vance puts it: "This is the kind of film I liked when I was growing up. And it's the kind of film I think people like me will like."

No doubt they will. Although one hopes that doesn't mean viewers like him will decide to build their own projectors so they can watch it. –Melissa Steineger