Mar 312010
 
Authors: Anna Baldwin

In 2006, Brent Hoff faced a life sentence for participating in a game of volleyball.

His lawyer advised that if he, a documentary filmmaker, hit the first volleyball over his makeshift “net,” that he could be put away in prison. And that was if he could get close enough to the net to do so.

This was not the typical volleyball net. Rather it was made of metal with razor sharp barbed wire at the top and protected by guards with guns.

The net more commonly serves as the fence on the boarder of the United States and Mexico, at the San Diego and Tijuana border.

Sending anything across international borders without clearing customs could have resulted in a felony charge for Hoff. After three volleys of the ball, he’d be subject to mandatory life imprisonment under California’s three-strikes law.

“How funny would that have been?” Hoff, a Fort Collins native and CSU alumnus, said. “Getting sent to jail for playing volleyball?”

Hoff was not originally supposed to partake in the game, but said he had to fill in after the professional team he hired failed to show after having reservations about the gig on the drive over.

The international match, played with several Tijuanans on the other side of the border, served as material for the short film, titled “Wallyball,” for Hoff’s quarterly DVD magazine Wholphin.

Eventually “Wallyball” debuted in 117 countries and was showcased on the Wall Street Journal’s Web Site.

Hoff and his friend, Team USA, won the match 15 to 13 over Team Mexico. No bullets flew and no one went to jail.

The road to Wholphin

The journey to cofounding Wholphin in 2004 is as interesting as it is random, said Hoff, who insists he has been completely unqualified for everything he’s ever done.

Hoff graduated from CSU in 1991 with a degree in political science, which he recalled as a wonderful, relaxing four and a half years where he “played a lot of volleyball and Frisbee golf, played in a band and had a lot of nice ski trips.”

“That is pretty much my entire memory I have of it,” Hoff said. “I felt like it was a little bit like a holding pen before people had to get jobs and act like adults.”

After graduation, he moved to San Francisco to play in a punk band. Though the band didn’t last long, Hoff would pen the book “Mapping Epidemics,” which chronicled the history of disease outbreaks, without any previous writing experience.

Eventually, Hoff would swap coasts, moving to New York in 1999, where he started dabbling in independent films while working on a documentary about heavy metal musicians.

Hoff got his break into the film and TV writing business after a chance encounter with Madeleine Smithberg.

The co-creator of the Comedy Central show “The Daily Show” overheard Hoff in a New York restaurant telling a friend about dolphin rape and gave him her card.

“You have to put yourself in the position to be lucky like that and to meet people,” Hoff said.

He was offered a job on the show, where he worked for about a year as a producer and writer.

But Hoff would eventually leave after being fed up with what he called “mean television.”

“I remember sitting on a plane with Steve Carrell and being like, ‘What are we doing, man? Is this going be our career? Going around the country and making fun of people? That’s not very nice,’” Hoff said.

After leaving Comedy Central, Hoff tried his hand at creating shows for Nickelodeon and “really bad reality shows for VH1.”

Eventually Hoff was ready to move on to something different, some serious filmmaking where he didn’t have to have any bosses and he could control the stuff he made.

The 4,000-pound wholphin in the room

A Wholphin, Hoff said, is a rare species of animal –– a cross between a 400-pound bottlenose dolphin and a 4,000-pound false killer whale.

And when he and friend Dave Eggers looked to develop an electronic magazine, Hoff said he wanted a name that would embody the type of films they wanted to feature and what type of films they were looking for.

“I was looking for films that were amazing and unusual and beautiful, and I realized I was looking for cinematic wholphins,” Hoff said. “It’s impossible to spell, impossible to pronounce, so very unusual, and it’s like a whole different product –– exactly the films we wanted.”

Wholphin is a collection of short films that Hoff said don’t really have a place outside of their initial small venues, as well as films that the magazine produces or directs itself.

“We tried to figure out why for a lot of short films there wasn’t a place to see them beyond the film festivals,” Hoff, who is currently the editor, said. “We wanted to try to get these films out.”

The films featured on the DVDs are from many countries across the globe, and all feature unique topics. Several of these include a crying competition, where the first person to get a tear to hit the table wins, and the most humiliating breakup ever.

On their most recent issue, one film features the world’s most dangerous jog, where astrophysicists perform an annual nude run from their Antarctic compound to the South Pole marker –– about 90 meters.

“I’ve been able to make a lot of silly short films, and it’s been really great,” Hoff said. “It’s not really about educating people. It’s really about showing great films. It’s about showing the things that I observe.”

Hoff also said the films cover prominent social issues. His inspiration behind creating “Wallyball” was to demonstrate the only thing the border fence was good for: a volleyball net.

Wholphin will have an Asian tour in the fall and issue 12 is in the works.

As for Hoff, he’s recently written two scripts –– one about a 3-D giant squid and another about the last days of Old Dirty Bastard –– but he’s also looking into directing.

“I’m starting to do more Hollywood stuff, and hopefully it won’t suck my soul dry,” Hoff said. “I’m also venturing into directing. But it’s really hard to get people to give you a lot of money for a film, so we’ll see.”

Hoff said he’ll continue to travel and “see great films and enjoy meeting interesting people.”

“I’ve always had this blind optimism … and that’s probably why I’ve had the success that I’ve had,” Hoff said. “And if you want something bad enough and you put yourself in a position to have a shot at attaining it, chances are you will get that shot.”

Staff writer Anna Baldwin can be reached at verve@collegian.com.

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