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Splashy Water Safety Film Goes Nationwide Spokane Production ‘Safe Passage’ Wins Praise

Fri., Jan. 2, 1998, midnight

(From For the Record, Saturday, January 3, 1998:) Name misspelled: The name of Robby Burke, a child actor who stars in an educational film produced by a Spokane company, was misspelled in a photo caption in Friday’s newspaper.

Today, water safety. Tomorrow, Walk of Fame.

Spokane’s North By Northwest Productions recently whipped out the wine and cheese platters for a screening of what will soon be a widely watched epic: “Safe Passage,” a riveting special-effects tale of two kids swept up in that timeless struggle to promote the use of life preservers.

The federally funded, $142,000 film already has passed muster with the Pentagon. Copies will be sent to every elementary school in the nation. And one of the stars - a boy who looks like he should play tambourine with the band Hanson - will appear in a cable flick with John Boy from “The Waltons.”

But the suits in the beltway doubted it could be done here, in yonder wheat field.

“They questioned whether the Northwest could handle (the production),” said Lynda Nutt, who manages the water safety program for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “People think you have to be in New York or Los Angeles, really.”

But when she took the film to her bosses in D.C., everything was two-thumbs up. Folks here gave it four stars, too.

“Wow, what a blow-away,” raved Craig S. Rockwell - AKA “Ranger Rock” of the Corps’ Walla Walla District.

“Everyone kept saying, ‘The federal government put this out?’ It put us on our ear. We used to use Freddy the Fish, for cryin’ out loud. His motto was, ‘Don’t drown, it’ll ruin your whole day.”’

In this film, though, young Jason and sister Holly find a magic compass inside an antique ship. It transports them to various scenes, from that dammed river to this pristine lake, from Wave Runner to fishing boat. It’s all so they’ll stay on the straight and narrow pier when it comes to water safety.

The special effects are what make this show cool for kids. The compass’ face produces mystic messages, thanks to 3-D computer imaging. Water spouts from the lake and into a thin wall, where safety scenarios flash across it. The effects are like something out of “The Abyss.”

And the sound? Loud, surround, big and bassy.

Walking around the North By Northwest techno compound at Lincoln and Broadway, it’s no surprise. The place looks like a cross between the Enterprise engine room and a Bond villain’s condo.

It’s wall-to-wall keyboards, control panels, big screens and flickery black-and-white displays. Lots of levers, and racks and racks of VCRs. Topping it off are cool leather couches, splotchy paintings and art deco lighting.

Pointing to one seriously revvin’ piece of PC, film director Frank Swoboda grins. “‘Toy Story’ was done on a machine not even this good.”

With this gadgetry, the company has designed title graphics for a handful of award shows, like the Golden Globes. And it shot three full-length movies in 1997, too. “Roadblock,” a Showtime movie directed by Joey Travolta, is the most recent.

But somebody else was in charge on that project. With the Army Corps project, the firm could go creative crazy.

Swoboda said the project could have cost up to $500,000 if produced in L.A. or the Big Apple. But in the Northwest, overhead is lower. The film was shot in Coeur d’Alene, along the Snake River near Pasco, and at Priest Lake.

Nutt moved from the other Washington to Walla Walla in 1994, and the water program went West with her. But it took some coaxing on her part to get the film made here. Judy Sprankle, a teacher from Grand Coulee, wrote the textbook to go with it.

Now, Nutt is talking with Nickelodeon about a cablecast.

Since the film mixes cliff-hangers with the message, Swoboda thinks children won’t tune out. In previous Corps films, things have been a little … yawn inspiring.

“We kind of got lost in the format,” Nutt said. “What we call talking-head films.”

Monday night, a crowd of 60 or so people involved with the movie caught a preview. Afterward, a 6-year-old with a bit part went around asking for autographs.

Other kid extras hung out with the two stars from Seattle and swapped glittery chatter.

“Do you have an agent?” a kid asked 13-year-old Robby Burke.

“Rob, I forgot to give you my phone number,” schmoozed a freckled boy. “If you hear about any open auditions, give me a call.”

Burke is the kid lead in the upcoming “Big and Hairy” with Richard Thomas. And in a Disney film, he played runner Steve Prefontaine as a boy. The other star, Keala Hopps, also has deals in the works.

Everyone else wants breaks, too. As a girl left Monday, she hollered to the director, “Keep me in mind!”

It’s just part of being Swoboda, the new Spielberg of third-grade flicks.

“It’s all word of mouth,” he said. “It’s who you know.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT IT COST If it had been filmed in Los Angeles or New York, the federally funded “Safe Passage” could have cost up to $500,000, director Frank Swoboda said. But in the Northwest, overhead is lower, and the total was $142,000.

This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT IT COST If it had been filmed in Los Angeles or New York, the federally funded “Safe Passage” could have cost up to $500,000, director Frank Swoboda said. But in the Northwest, overhead is lower, and the total was $142,000.


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