A white, two-inch-tall teddy bear lies next to an M4 assault rifle. Behind them on a blue wall are T-shirts of Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty. One reads: "Fuck You Binn [sic] Laden."
"And welcome to yet another Ted-E Adventure," a voice narrates. "This week's adventure is more like a reality TV show. We've got our contestant Ted-E, and we're providing him with an automatic rifle -- with no bullets -- a first-aid kit, combat boots, and a canteen. And an all-expenses-paid vacation to sunnnnny Iraq."
The camera then pans across the patriotic T-shirts. "Plus," the narrator continues, "this fabulous wardrobe, which I'm sure will make him real popular with the locals. All he has to do is follow this map from start to finish. If he does this within 30 minutes without standing up, he'll win this fabulous, brand-new scooter."
A light-blue Vespa comes into view, and the camera pans down to a sign that reads "DANGER MINEFIELD" as the narrator continues: "Here's our finish line. Good luck, Ted-E. And by the way, just to make things interesting, we told the locals you're coming -- and gave them a copy of the map. Crawl your little ass off, you bastard, because if you stand up, I'm sure you'll be disqualified instantaneously by the locals. Good luck, you little asshole."
The camera then cuts to Ted-E crawling across the desert, bombs going off near him, sending sand over his tiny body. Bullets pierce the ground he crawls on, making high-pitched sounds as they zing past. The camera cuts again and shows a close-up of Ted-E's brown boot, pushing sand back and creating a perfect trail on the windswept desert. Another cut, and yet another bomb explodes, sending up a wave of sand.
Undaunted, Ted-E doggedly crawls. Finally, as he reaches the finish line, he turns to the right, edging toward the viewer. Behind him, arid mountains can be seen in the distance.
Ted-E appears to have won the reality TV show. But just as he is about to claim victory, it happens. An explosion rocks the scene. The cute little bear's body parts are strewn about, his head intact but covered in blood, thanks to a mine. Finally, his assault rifle falls from the sky and sticks, barrel down, in the blood-speckled sand. Ted-E dies. He always dies.
So ends another episode of Ted-E Adventures, a series of short, special-effects-laden films produced by Fort Lauderdale resident Liza Trainer, a stout 41-year-old with short black hair and a masculine build, and her group of student filmmakers. Nearly every night, Trainer and her young partners gather in a South Middle River studio to film and edit short films that star the cuddly and lovable yet oh-so-doomed Ted-E. The final products are later posted on the group's website, www.tedeadventures.com.
In a rapidly changing motion picture industry, Trainer's group represents both a rebellion and the possible future. They are the actors, cinematographers, animators, directors, and producers of their own films, empowered by readily available computers and software. Their subject matter is radical, their humor, well, unorthodox. When Trainer and her partners aren't producing violence, they're using sex to sell it to club kids.
It's guerrilla filmmaking, and it's catching on in the $30 billion movie industry. Last month, for example, one of the most talked-about movies at the Sundance Film Festival was Tarnation, a homemade personal documentary created by untrained 31-year-old New York filmmaker Jonathan Caouette. Using VHS home movies and more than 200 photographs spliced together and edited on an iMac, Caouette made a film that details his rough childhood, which was spent in and out of foster homes. It cost him $218 and change. Since the no-budget movie's premiere, filmmakers John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Elephant) have signed on to support the movie's distribution.
It's this type of all-talent, no-money success that Trainer and her Ted-E Adventures group hope to achieve. Using word of mouth and guerrilla marketing stunts that double as street theater, the group of filmmakers hopes to build an online audience for the violent Ted-E Adventures. So far, they've finished about 12 shorts, ranging from 30 seconds to two minutes long. In them, Ted-E is electrocuted, microwaved, and boiled and even takes a bullet to the head, his blood spattered on a wall behind him.
Becoming a filmmaker isn't something Liza Trainer's grade-school classmates would have predicted for her. The daughter of a Fort Lauderdale psychic, Trainer suffers from dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder. In school, she was a miserable failure, and she became a class clown to compensate for her academic woes. "My teachers hated me," she explains. "They'd punish me in the cruelest ways. Imagine being forced to go up in front of the class and read from a book. The teachers knew I couldn't do it. Not only was it hard enough that I would be nervous and my palms would be all sweaty; the fucking words were backwards."
Trainer was nevertheless promoted through school and finally, at age 16, ended her educational experience by dropping out after junior high school. She has never become fully literate; to this day, she asks how to spell such simple words as our and sure. But that isn't to say Trainer is dumb. She has an uncanny ability to build anything from, well, anything.
That talent sparked her first foray into the fringe art world in the mid-'90s, when she became something of a local curiosity. For several years, she made a living by constructing seven-foot-tall robots, some with televisions for heads, using scrap metal and junked car parts.
They sold for as much as $10,000 apiece to art studios and private collectors. In fact, after seeing the robots, John Naimi, the former owner of Button South in Hallandale Beach, commissioned Trainer to build a seven-foot-tall, 800-pound robotic Tyrannosaurus Rex.
In addition to such monstrous constructions,Trainer built intelligent machines with household functions. One of them was a self-roving vacuum cleaner that stood about two feet tall and had a tire on each side. Its only fault? It couldn't empty the bag.
But Trainer left robotics behind several years ago. These days, she's tired of talking about the various machines, though she still has one of her creations, a robot made of Harley-Davidson parts, in her studio. "That's all people ask me about," she says with palpable disdain.
The welder turned artist has long had another goal in mind: filmmaking. In fact, in the hallway leading to her studio hangs a picture of a 14-year-old Trainer. The young girl is in front of a Star Wars backdrop holding a sign that reads: "This is just the beginning." Trainer has a particular affinity for science fiction and horror films -- the more special effects, blood, and guts, the better.
Her first step into the moviemaking industry came in 2000, when she landed a job at United Mask and Party in Sebring, which custom-built props for movies and haunted houses. The best of her work there, Trainer says, was a skeleton that lifted itself from a coffin and then opened its mouth, pouring blood over the bones. The difficulty came in creating a figure that could make a bloody mess in a scene, then be quickly readied for another one. Trainer's idea: cover the bones in Scotchgard, a chemical used on upholstery. The artificial blood dripped cleanly off the skeleton and pooled in a pan at the bottom of the coffin for use minutes later. "It was awesome," Trainer says proudly.
But the filmmaker recalls the two years she spent in Sebring unhappily. An abrasive personality who has an admitted problem with authority, she didn't get along with her bosses. As a result, she decided to go it on her own.
In May 2002, Trainer took what money she had saved and purchased a 1982 Ford Crown Victoria that had been used -- or, more accurately, abused -- as a prop car. "I'm told it was used in the filming of Lethal Weapon," she says. "One of the selling points for me was a dent near the front windshield. It was made by Mel Gibson's boot, or so I'm told."
She returned to Fort Lauderdale and rented a loft on 13th Street and Old Dixie Highway. Squatters had spray-painted everything from the walls to the washing machine and used the living room as a bathroom after the toilet backed up. "It was nasty, absolutely nasty in here," Trainer states. She removed the carpeting, repainted the walls, remodeled the kitchen, and turned the space into her apartment and movie studio.
Around the same time, she landed steady contract work with Banyan Air Service at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, painting sensitive jet panels. The highly specialized jobs are often last minute, but they pay well. "I made $65,000 last year working part-time," Trainer says with a grin.
Those earnings were used to bankroll her film company, LHM (Liza's Home Movies) Productions, and purchase equipment.
She made a few music videos for local artists before getting the idea for her newest obsession. She was out on the town one night about six months ago when she had one of her frequent why-the-fuck-not moments and tied a teddy bear to the hood of her Crown Victoria. "What's that?" someone asked upon seeing it.
"That's the Ted-E Adventure," she replied, off the cuff.
And the idea was born. "We're going to kill bears," she told a friend, "cute white little bears."
It's nearing midnight on Friday, January 16, when Liza Trainer and 22-year-old Jesse Nieves, a friend and fellow filmmaker, scramble up and down the stairs leading from an alley off Old Dixie Highway to Trainer's second-story studio and apartment.
Nieves, whose light brown skin hints at his Haitian ancestry, is dressed in a plain white T-shirt hidden partially under a black coat. Hanging from a string around his neck is a portable hard drive. It holds data from his current film-editing project. Nieves carries it with him everywhere. "What do you want me to do with these?" he asks, holding up a garbage bag full of small white teddy bears so Trainer can see them.
"Throw 'em in the back seat," she answers. Next to her is the Crown Victoria, painted mostly purple, with designs that appear to be graffiti from a distance but upon close examination reveal themselves as intricate patterns. A six-inch-tall, white teddy bear is glued to the long hood. Another appears to be holding onto the side window, as if surfing in traffic. A camera is attached to the front of the hood with a wire coming back to the front seat to allow a passenger to control the camera's movement as the car cruises along. Across the back window, white letters read: "LHM Productions -- We Bring Wierd [sic] Things to Life."
"This is the Bearmobile," Trainer says, wearing black from head to toe, with a leather coat flowing down to her ankles. "Tonight's gonna be a riot."
Nieves shakes his head as if he just wants to go home. "Liza's really doing this," he says. "It'll be crazy. I know that much. It's always crazy with Liza."
Trainer has decided it is time to start propagandizing for Ted-E Adventures with the locals. She and Nieves pile into the Crown Victoria, and it starts up with a roar. They head down Andrews Avenue, receiving curious stares from other drivers until they cross Himmarshee and pull in front of Murphy's Law, an Irish club in the midst of the city's nightlife district.
DJ Cash Profit, an olive-skinned man with a respectable beer paunch and two hoops in his left ear, stands in front of an open space on the side of SW First Avenue. A disc jockey at Murphy's Law, Cash waves the car into a parking spot and places cones in front.
Trainer turns. "You can't use Cash's real name," she tells New Times. "He's running from warrants or debts of some kind. We're not quite sure."
Dressed in all black including a coal-colored blazer, Cash has agreed to be the guinea pig for a new section of the Ted-E Adventures website, Ted-E TV. The plan? He will carry around a microphone and harass late-night revelers as Trainer videotapes. "We're going to get drunk people to do crazy shit and film it," Cash says as he notices two young women walk up to the car in curiosity.
He turns to Trainer. "Give me the microphone," he orders.
Trainer hands it over and then follows the DJ, the camera lifted to her face.
Cash introduces himself to the young women and hands them drink tickets for Murphy's Law. "Well, girls, here's a free shot so you can get drunk and hopefully molest me later," he says and then continues to make suggestive comments as the women giggle. Finally, he starts his shtick. "You know Michael Jackson, right?" he says. "He's big in the news. Now--"
"He's a child molester," responds Cherisse Morganstein, a skinny 24-year-old brunet wearing tight black pants and a red tube top.
"So you believe he actually did it?"
"Yes," responds her friend, Andrea Meadows, a dainty 23-year-old with dyed red hair. A crowd gathers around the filming.
"Now, ladies, do you approve of homosexual pedophilia?" Cash asks.
"No, I don't," Meadows answers as her friend echoes a louder: "No!"
"No anal or oral sex for young boys?"
"No!" they say in unison.
Cash smiles. "How about older men?"
The two women laugh and step back, half-offended. But they're not leaving; they're hooked. Cash turns to the camera. "Can you get a shot of Michael Jackson bear over there?" he instructs. Trainer turns the camera and focuses in on a two-foot-tall white bear with long black hair, a black top hat, and eyeliner sitting on a white plastic chair. It has an uncanny resemblance to the recently indicted King of Pop.
"Now, there is that homosexual pedophile piece-of-shit motherfucker," Cash continues, pointing to the bear.
Morganstein's arms fall to her sides, a Heineken in her right hand. "Do we get to kick his ass?" she queries.
"Absolutely," Cash responds.
Nieves takes the fluffy King of Pop and places him atop the Crown Victoria. Cash hands the young woman a wooden Easton baseball bat. Morganstein walks up to the car, raising the bat and pointing out her right elbow 90 degrees.
"Beat his ass!" a woman from the growing crowd of about 30 yells.
Morganstein swings and sends Michael Jackson over the car and about five feet into the street. She pulls down her tight-fitting top, adjusting it. "That's right, bitch," she says as she moves in to continue the attack. Trainer follows with the camera. The bat-wielding young woman clubs the bear four more times as a green Volvo passes by, the passenger's head sticking out as he surveys the scene.
The crowd grows larger. Nieves picks up the bear and places it back on the car. Cash hands the bat to Meadows, the redheaded companion. "She's got an arm on her," Morganstein warns the crowd, referring to her friend.
Dressed in heels and a black one-piece with slits up each side that expose her lower thighs, Meadows walks up to the rear of the Crown Victoria where Michael Jackson sets, his top hat crushed from the previous beating. Meadows swings, the force of the impact hurling the bear back into the road. She staggers into the street and wails on the bear, one, two, three, then kicks it farther down the road.
Cash follows in pursuit, then picks up the battered toy. Trainer is behind him with the camera. Onlookers peak over shoulders to see what's going on. "Throw him in traffic!" Trainer yells.
Just then, a crotch-rocket motorcycle turns in front of Murphy's Law. Cash holds his arm out, the microphone prominently displaying the logo for Ted-E TV. "Stop! Stop! Stop!" he yells and throws the bear in front of the motorcycle.
"Run him over!" the crowd yells.
The motorcyclist hits the throttle and rolls his front tire over Michael Jackson, sending the bear under the engine, where it lodges between the two tires. The motorcyclist continues down SW First Avenue, unconcerned about the teddy grinding beneath his ride. Trainer zooms in the camera. "He's still going!" she yells. "He's still going!" Finally, the motorcyclist turns left as he nears Riverwalk, and the impaled Michael Jackson bear disappears somewhere down Andrews Avenue.
"Now that's a Ted-E Adventure!" Trainer proclaims.
The crowd pushes in on Trainer and Cash. "This is that Ted-E Adventures thing," a man behind them says. "I heard about this."
Overhearing the comment, Trainer lifts her head from the lens and offers a wry smile. "See," she says, "this marketing stuff is easy. People just love to kill bears. We're going to be huge."
Cameras litter the living room of Trainer's apartment turned studio. A 50-inch wide-screen television sits in the living room in front of four rows of theater-style seats that she built by hand using wood and futon cushions. A blast screen -- a weighed-down Plexiglas panel intended to protect the camera during rough-and-tumble shoots -- sets in the corner. On the ceiling hangs a crucified man, blood seeming to drip from his body. Homemade prop firearms, ranging from shotguns to 9mm pistols complete with safeties and removable clips, hang on the east and south blood-red walls. As Damian Hyde, one of the film students who work with Trainer, describes it: "There's enough fake guns in here for a small army."
On the other side of the loft, behind the kitchen, Trainer last summer constructed an editing room with three televisions and three computer monitors, a complete sound system and equalizer, and four computers equipped with movie-editing software.
Among Trainer's first projects was a black-and-white music video for local singer-songwriter Beverly McClellan. It featured busty French actress Agathe Retornaz running through an alley and over a parked car while dressed in heels as McClellan sits at a piano, singing about a girl on the run. The juxtaposition of the feminine Retornaz and the androgynous McClellan was striking. Trainer made the video for McClellan in exchange for an agreement that the filmmaker could use the song in upcoming movies.
To move from music videos to special effects-laden films, Trainer needed a film editor. After advertising for help, she received a call from Nieves, a senior at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale who was searching for a project that would allow him to experiment. Trainer told him about Ted-E Adventures, and he was hooked. He brought two fellow Art Institute students with him, 21-year-olds Hyde and Ken LeSaint.
One of their first films became the Ted-E Adventures anthem; it shows Ted-E walking down the street, skipping along to music from a nursery rhyme. A man sings:
Ted-E the bear, where did he go?
Here he is, there he is, pieces everywhere.
Ted-E thinks it's playtime.
Little does he know,
Playtime for Ted-E means his brains are gonna go.
He's fluffy and oh so cute,
But the things we do to Ted-E gonna make you puke.
Ted-E the bear, where did he go?
Here he is, there he is, pieces everywhere.
As in all Ted-E Adventures, Ted-E dies, of course. A tractor-trailer barreling down behind him runs over his fluffy body. An ambulance follows behind and picks him up. As the emergency vehicle cruises off-screen, it explodes, sending Ted-E's flaming body back into the street as it spins and spins. The song continues in soprano: "Ted-E, Ted-E, Ted-E... the bear."
Ted-E sits in a hallway surrounded by columns and ventilation tubes made to look like a space colony from James Cameron's Aliens. Alarms sound, moving from high to low pitch. Ted-E fidgets as he nervously sucks his left thumb.
"You now have 15 minutes to reach minimum safe distance," a woman says over an intercom.
Ominous music begins. Then, a mucous-dripping alien appears in another corner of the space colony; it looks about and waves its spiked tail like a cat preparing for a kill. The alien turns and walks to the right. Alarms blare.
Ted-E, still seated and sucking his thumb, seems to sense something and turns his head, his eyes blinking anxiously. He doesn't see anything. The music grows louder; the bass deepens.
The alien draws closer. Then it's right behind Ted-E, strands of mucous flowing down to its chest.
"Emergency! Emergency!" the voice on the intercom announces. "All personnel must evacuate immediately. You now have 14 minutes to reach minimum safe distance."
Ted-E looks down at the ground. The alien creeps up from behind. As it moves in to strike, Ted-E looks up, his mouth agape, and a long shadow looms over the cute little body.
"Kill the fucking bear already!" yells LeSaint, the wooden Easton baseball bat in his hand. The scene cuts; the viewer sees the film crew's cameras and lights assembled around the set. LeSaint steps forward and slams down the bat on little Ted-E, decapitating him and spilling blood all over the set. Hyde, kneeling next to the set, is spattered with Ted-E's red blood and stumbles off-camera.
LeSaint savagely attacks the miniature space colony, sending shards of plastic and Styrofoam flying through the studio. He strikes a light, sending it to the floor and knocking one of the cameras sideways. Pieces of metal ding, ding as they fall to the ground. Then he strikes the miniature set with the other end of the Easton like a spear.
Finally, LeSaint makes an about-face, his gray shirt smeared with blood. He walks calmly toward the camera. "Now that's how we get things done," LeSaint says matter of factly, walking off the set.
And that was the end of the tenth episode of Ted-E Adventures. It's exactly this type of violent but inventive film that Trainer and her group of young filmmakers hope to encourage others to make. They estimate that there are hundreds of aspiring filmmakers toying around with video-editing programs on home computers. All they need is a project, or so Trainer believes.
And that's partly why she decided to base her film series on a white bear; it's a cheap product readily available worldwide. "You could make a Ted-E Adventure for $7 to $10," she says. "We want to create a following with Ted-E Adventures."
To submit a short film, according to the website, the rules are simple. In fact, there's only one rule: Ted-E must die. Any format, including animation, is allowed. Under the submissions section of the website, the Ted-E Adventures filmmakers have posted three easy-to-make films that they hope will serve as examples and inspirations for others. In them, Ted-E is massacred by a large chainsaw-wielding figure; the little bear is then sliced in half by an ax and shake-and-baked in a "killer drier."
The group hopes that the original films, coupled with others submitted by independent filmmakers, will catch on through word of mouth and build an online audience. Then maybe some big-name filmmaker like Gus Van Sant will notice.
"When you're working with no budget and improvising, it's all about talent," Trainer explains. "And that's the point. It makes no difference if you're making a film for $4 or $4 million. You either have talent or you don't."
As the bars along Himmarshee empty out at 3 a.m. on Saturday, January 17, one of Trainer's friends pulls up in a cab alongside Murphy's Law. It's Jimmy Warner, a 34-year-old bartender at the Factory who lives around the corner from the filmmaker. Dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt, Warner takes a bottle of Miller Lite from Trainer and offers a mischievous smile. Like the law-evading DJ Cash, Warner has volunteered to perform crazy stunts in the name of Ted-E Adventures.
He lifts the bottle of beer to his lips, then notices a woman walking by in a tight-fitting black miniskirt. He creeps up from behind. "That's a right nice turd cutter you got yourself there, lassie," he says in a fake Irish accent. The woman turns. Warner smiles. She walks off, disgusted. Warner returns to the Crown Victoria with a look of victory in his eyes as Trainer hands him a golf club. "It's time," she says.
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Tacked onto the roof of the Crown Victoria is a wooden board covered in green carpeting. Eight-inch lines of tape lead from the bumper and up over the back windshield to mark the path from the street to the driving range atop the car. Warner sets his beer on the ground and hops up. He takes a few practice swings as one of Fort Lauderdale's finest drags a man from Murphy's Law and into the back of the cruiser parked in front of the Bearmobile. Trailing behind the cop and the detainee are three scantily clad women. The one seemingly in charge motions to a Murphy's Law bouncer. "Hey!" she yells, extending her middle finger in the air. "You see this? Fuck you!"
Warner laughs and then sees a woman in white pants and a red blouse whom he recognizes from the Factory. He motions to her, and she climbs atop the car. Warner hands her the golf club and places a two-inch-tall teddy bear on the green. They face south, with Warner cradling her hips in his hands to aid her swing. "C'mon, Jimmy!" Trainer says. "Knock that shit off."
The woman tees off and misses as Trainer videotapes. Then she notices the cop standing next to the cruiser, right in the middle of their urban golf course. "Don't hit the cop!" she yells. "Don't hit the cop!"
She doesn't. But Ted-E, as always, is history.