By 2009, freelance work was drying up, a casualty of the crumbling economy. Common Machine was in dire straits.
“We were burning through all our savings,” O’Bourke says. “Then we thought, ‘Well if TV isn’t buying anything, who else can we get money from? This is 2009. We’re still shooting standard-def. Video was not yet ubiquitous online. We came very early to the party of video on the Internet. We spent months running tests after tests figuring out compressions to push high-quality video on the web using low bandwidth. Porn sites were our proof of concept, because they had tons of money even during the recession. They had figured out the algorithms. So we knew it was possible. But we weren’t going to work for a porn site!”
Instead, Common Machine worked out the technical details and started amassing a roster of clients — a mixture of retailers, national corporations and medical centers. They made videos for the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, Jackson Health Systems and AirTran Airways. For KA-BAR knives, they made a zombie film. For Oak Street Bootmakers, they shot a beautiful mini-doc on location in Maine that resulted in record-breaking sales for the company. When Southwest Airlines bought AirTran and replaced their public relations team, their former head of publicity landed at GE-Hitachi’s nuclear power division and hired Common Machine to make entirely different (and top-secret) kinds of films.
The company’s commercial work can be viewed on their website, commonmachine.com. O’Bourke and González refer to that facet of their company as the “creative” side — the one that generates income to help pay for their “cinema” side. Common Machine maintains offices in Wynwood (which is relocating to the Design District) and Chicago.
Although the hourlong Plastic Paradise was budgeted at $80,000 by WLRN, the finished film is so slick and polished, it looks like it cost four times that to make.
“The commercial clients enable us because we have the cameras, the post-production facilities, the hard-drive space — all the means at our disposal in order to make films for “free” in terms of production. We own those already. Then we have a huge team of freelancers — sound designers, editors, cinematographers, associate producers, colorists — who want to do interesting projects. We give them commercial work, and then they’re willing to accept exceedingly reduced rates to get credits on the kinds of films they want to be doing.”
Jorge Rubiera was a singer and drummer for various Miami-area bands — A.N.R., Animal Tropical, Downhome Southernaires — before he joined Common Machine as an editor and cinematographer.
“I had always made films as well as music,” says Rubiera, 30, who edited Plastic Paradise. “For a while, I concentrated primarily on touring and recording and all that. But once I met these guys, I decided to devote myself to making films for a living full-time. We have a really good understanding of how our work flows and how to put our movies together. We shot a tremendous number of interviews for Plastic Paradise, way more than you would normally have in an hourlong film. Gaspar wrote transcripts of every interview, which allowed him to build the script on paper, and then he brought it to me. That was incredibly helpful. What’s nice about having so many interviews is that people can finish each other’s sentences. You can have a historian, a bartender and a participant at a tiki event all weighing in on the same idea, which is cool.”