It's Sunday night, and Cy Kuckenbaker is on San Miguel Mountain, waiting for a meteor shower. It's supposed to be the biggest of the year, and he's there to shoot photos for his project, The San Diego Studies . He doesn't want to jinx it by assuming that he's going to capture some great images.
"I'm very superstitious about this stuff," says Kuckenbaker, a teacher at San Diego City College and former Fulbright grant winner. "It's a lot of serendipity. You go for one thing but get another. But, hopefully, the meteor shower will happen without the camera croaking out on me. You never know."
Despite a thick haze on Sunday night, the images he got were "brill," as he puts it the next day, and he'll be able to use them for his project.
The San Diego Studies is happening thanks to a $20,000 grant from the San Diego Foundation's Creative Catalyst Fund, which gives artists opportunities to create new work by partnering them with nonprofit arts and cultural institutions. The Museum of Photographic Arts (MoPA) chose Kuckenbaker's project out of more than a dozen proposals, and during the year-long partnership, MoPA will provide him with the resources to complete his project. That means using MoPA's editing room, brainstorming ideas with curators and, yes, money. It's the first time the museum will have an artist-in-residence.
"What he's doing is really unique, because it offers an opportunity for us to expand our presence in video art," says Chantel Paul, assistant curator at MoPA and project leader for the Creative Catalyst Fellowship. "Not a lot of people are doing what he is doing. He developed the technique for his videos, which never existed before."
That technique is called chroma key, which Kuckenbaker compares to creating a green screen, then removing the background space and replacing it with something else. He uses the process to create 30- to 60-second videos.
"There was just a good energy to the proposal from the beginning," Paul says. "It just seemed like a neat project that we wanted to be part of."
His first video showed every plane landing at Lindbergh Field from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Black Friday in 2012. He used the blue sky as the green screen to cut out the planes in post-production and then sped up the planes' movement and added an image of a bridge located in Ocean Beach. The result is a surreal assault of airplanes in the sky. That video, and another Kuckenbaker recently finished, can be seen at cysfilm.com.
"I basically make special-effect documentaries," he says. "I was trying to experiment in showing something that's totally real and totally factual. That's the idea. It's a very pop style that is very well-suited for the web. I take a little piece of city and condense it into this really short-form documentary."
Kuckenbaker has a few ideas for upcoming videos. He wants to do more involving people, like lifeguards rescuing folks in distress.
Using chroma key on humans, however, is much more time-consuming and has a higher chance of error. But that's a challenge he's willing to take.
"It's difficult," he says, "but it allows for growth."