I enjoy me some good, indie, underground, cult movies. I used to have walls of videotapes of films that weren’t really big at Blockbuster Video. They took up a lot of space…a lot of space.
I eventually had to sacrifice many of those videotapes out of necessity, but not all of it could be replaced on DVD.
One such film, The Wizard of Speed and Time, never made it to DVD–at least not officially, but it did get saved from Laserdisc to YouTube.
The movie came up recently when discussing “forgotten” cult classics with some friends. Some had heard of the movie, many had not. I felt that it was time to make mention of it again.
In 1979, independent filmmaker Mike Jittlov whipped up a three-minute short entitled “The Wizard of Speed and Time”. It featured stop-motion camera animation, speeded up film, and other practical effects.
The story, such as it was, was of a man in a green wizard costume running with lightning speed across LA, slipping on a banana peel, then crashing into a small movie studio where he uses his magic to get film canisters, camera tripods, and lights to start dancing around.
It’s a cute little short, and rather impressive given that it was filmed with practically no budget, and with the help of only a few friends. While Star Wars was wowing the world with big budget special effects, “The Wizard of Speed and Time” was wowing some with low-budget special effects–showing how, with creativity and talent, magic could happen in Hollywood regardless of traditional funding.
The short was featured in a Disney animation special, and then made the rounds of various film festivals and became staple viewing at science fiction conventions. Creator Mike Jittlov decided to try and make a feature film about the making of the short and, in 1983, finished the feature length version of The Wizard of Speed and Time which eventually saw limited release in 1988 and eventual availability on VHS and Laserdisc.
Because special effects technology changes fast, viewers in 1988 were not as impressed with the 1979 style of camera animation effects used, so its theatrical performance was not great.
Still, independent movie buffs, special effects buffs, and people who were just charmed by Jittlov’s work overall allowed it to take on an underground cult status to the point that, while not in anyone’s top-20 list of independent cult films, it still gets talked about.
As for the feature film, it stars Jittlov as a fictional version of himself. While the character is the same soft-spoken but intense aficionado of movie special effects that Jittlov is in real life, his film character life is additionally imbued with special effects. His eyes flash, he can send little sparkles off his fingertips, he makes glowing business cards appear out of thin air, and he owns was appears to be a rather magical bicycle.
Jittlov, with the help of his friends and family, sets out to create a special effects showcase short film for a television show. The morally-challenged producers who set him up for this challenge have made a $25,000 wager as to whether or not he could complete the project in three weeks (and with no budget) with one of the producers constantly throwing impediments in Jittlov’s way.
It’s a typical underdog-against-the-system sort of movie. In addition to having to deal with a producer sabotaging his efforts, Jittlov also must deal with a heavily unionized Hollywood which is actively hostile toward independent filmmakers.
Along the way, Jittlov and friends follow a typical Hollywood story including the various tropes of “bedroom scene”, “chase scene”, and “crowd scene”, but in ways that lovingly subvert the tropes a bit–more poking gentle fun at the Hollywood system, but also at the triteness of Hollywood stories themselves.
It’s not a mean movie, but it’s a movie that does reflect many of the frustrations independent filmmakers had to suffer prior to the video and digital revolutions.
I won’t spoil the story and tell you if our heroes managed to get their short on the television program, but it’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that the short does get made. By the end of the film we’re treated to a longer, more special effects-featured and storied version of the original 1979 film. It’s fantastic and well worth the wait. That, and it’s good to see how Mike and his friends fare against the Hollywood system and if anyone ever sees their film at all.
Here’s the short film as created by end of the movie, preceded briefly by a cleaned up version of the second part of the 1979 short also featured in the main film:
Additional praise should go to the music by John Massari. The soundtrack and feature music is both impressive and catchy. Some might recognize “The Wizard Run” music theme used in trailer for the Toy Story 3 videogame. In fact, a shout out to the whole cast and crew. Many were friends and family of the core group, unpaid extras, and just folks who believed in the project.
Several participants went on to more Hollywood work. Cinematographer Russell Carpenter went on to work on films such as The Lawnmower Man, Titanic, and Charlie’s Angels. John Massari worked on Killer Klowns from Outer Space. Philip Michael Thomas plays a cop here before he ever donned a sports jacket in Miami Vice.
If I had any real complaint or criticism of the film it would be its over-reliance on certain Hollywood business stereotypes: the Jewish producers, the gay choreographer, the stoner film technician, and so on. Unsurprisingly for an 80s movie, women play solely supportive roles.
While not entirely excusable, these tropes were pretty common in movies of the late 70s to mid-80s, e.g., Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Weird Science, etc. That said, The Wizard of Speed and Time is still a pretty impressive film in other ways. The low-budget yet fairly high production values speak of some real talent. While much of the acting is a bit uneven, there are some fairly good performances in there for so many non-actors.
It’s the little film with big spirit. That’s why it’s a winner.
But if The Wizard of Speed and Time was so good, why didn’t it become a viral video hit?
It would be easy to place a good part of the blame on producer Richard Kaye who did some shady things with some of the money aspects and got in the way of some of the distribution rights. Jittlov himself barely saw a dime from the production, but managed to get control of the rights eventually.
And the film did go viral…it just did so in a way that was normal for the time.
Remember, YouTube wasn’t founded until February of 2005. While streaming video was a thing in the early 00’s, it was still relatively new. For most, viral sensations on the internet featured animated gifs of dancing babies and cats. The Wizard of Speed and Time was released in 1989. In 1989 my online reach was pretty much limited to BBS systems and unwieldy online services such as CompuServe and Prodigy. While file sharing was a thing, it was limited to fairly small things such as documents, small share-ware programs, low-res images, and the occasional music file.
What we did have in the primitive early 90s were actual videotapes. And there was a thriving video sharing network for film buffs. A movie such as The Wizard of Speed and Time would have been shared across a vast network of bootlegged copies. The quality would invariably suffer after multiple generations of copies, but it was better than nothing. In a video buff’s bootleg library, you could find a copy of Jittlov’s film as well as compilations of foreign music videos, Star Trek blooper reels, the films of Kenneth Anger, maybe some videos of Henry Rollins doing spoken word performances, a copy of The Decline of Western Civilization – Part 1, 80s anime videos, and so forth. It would be another twenty years before most of this went digital and was accessible online to larger audiences.
My copy of The Wizard of Speed and Time was a third or fourth-generation bootleg. I lent it to someone else so they could make copies to pass on, but never got my original back. (This happened back in the video trading days. Sometimes people sucked.)
Mike Jittlov was an early Internet adopter–first putting up a webpage around 1995. With his unofficial approval, fans managed to convert the laserdisc edition to DVD, but by the early 00s, bootleg DVDs weren’t really a thing outside of pirated feature films. It took fans to get copies up on YouTube to make The Wizard of Speed and Time something everyone could easily enjoy.
Which is where we are now. Previously, I linked up the original 1979 16 mm short film that started it all, then I linked up to the five-minute video with the updated version plus the final video effects spectacular featured in the movie.
Here I give you the link to the full, feature-length movie itself.