- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Chris Conley’s recent cinematic adventure was quite an accomplishment.
Georgia’s senior receiver might make his name on the football field, but he grew up in a geek culture. His chiseled 6-foot-3, 206-pound frame is SEC, but his passions scream Comic-Con.
Months before Saturday’s highly anticipated debut of Conley’s no-so-amateur “Star Wars” short “Retribution,” Conley fidgeted in a rolling chair under the fuzzy lighting of a conference room inside Georgia’s football facility as he discussed the process of his project.
There was anxiety and excitement on his breath when he spoke about his film and how he dove headfirst into the project with football very much the center of his college life.
“I just kind of blindly picked up the phone and started recruiting people to be part of this team,” Conley said.
Conley’s mind has always been filled with comics, superheroes and science fiction. His real movie-making days began with a stop-motion animation film starring Legos he made with his brother Charles, whose middle name just happens to be Xavier, making him Charles Xavier for all you "X-Men" fans.
He and his brother both made comics that stretched from three to seven pages long, but Conley insists that Charles was the more artistic one.
And to tackle “Star Wars” seemed ideal. He was introduced to the series through the original three and he grew up with the most recent trilogy, causing him to embrace all six movies.
“To a kid, who doesn’t know any better, those [recent three movies] were amazing,” Conley said with a smile. “Everybody in my generation doesn’t understand what purists complain about because we’re like, ‘We love the whole thing.’”
Equipped with state-of-the-art computer graphics, slick choreography and a heart-pounding soundtrack, Conley brought to life an action-packed, 26-minute ride inside Georgia’s campus through a George Lucas-like lens.
“I like to be an avid learner, so it’s been a real learning process to learn how to do film and how to do it the right way, being someone who’s never gone to film school,” Conley said.
He started gathering his team in December. Writing, casting and choreography bled into February, when filming officially started. Conley, meanwhile, was entering spring practice as one of Georgia’s top returning receivers, doing morning mat drills with teammates.
“This was a unique experience,” Conley said. “I’ve worked on some small projects, but nothing ever this big. This is the first time that I’ve had about 60 people who are all looking at me for the answers, like when to be where and how we were going to go about things.”
Conley was learning the directing ropes. He was learning terminology, ordering shots, learning how to conduct himself on set, learning how to properly schedule shoots, figuring out framing, finding the right lighting, structuring blocking and studying how people react to what he said on set.
Interacting with people came naturally, but learning how to actually direct them was challenging, Conley said.
He also successfully juggled the sport he loved, academics and his ever-growing passion through discipline and cutting into one of his favorite activities.
“Planning a production takes a ridiculous amount of time,” Conley said. “The question when I told my coaches was where are you going to have time to do that, and I said, 'I don’t know.' So that time really came out of my sleep. I spent a ridiculous amount of hours up and planning this stuff because I couldn’t take anything out of my football obligations.”
The first weekend of shooting took 23 hours. The following Monday, Conley was up at daybreak for mat drills. He never let the movie become a distraction, which helped raise the respect his teammates had for him, Mason said.
“He’s a senior who’s been around a lot and he’s made plays, so guys kind of shut up and listen when he talks,” quarterback Hutson Mason said. “Guys know that he’s different. He’s not saying one thing and doing the other. Guys know that he’s genuine.
“Conley is the guy that you want modeling the name of Georgia and the name on the back of your jersey.”
Now we’ll find out how difficult it is to be a famed director and star SEC receiver. After catching 45 passes for 651 yards and four touchdowns last fall, Conley will be asked to do even more in 2014. With Malcolm Mitchell recovering from an ACL injury, Conley assumed the role as No. 1 receiver and dominated the spring.
Conley had time to direct and write a movie while playing a diabolical Sith lord. Returning to the gridiron shouldn’t be an issue.
“He represents his name and Georgia well, to a ‘T,’” Mason said. “Then, you take a guy who is a big, tall receiver, who just as far as the football field is another great weapon for us.
“He’s a guy that we feel if you leave one-on-one, it’s a mismatch. Conley’s just one of those guys that we feel if it’s in the red zone or in the middle of the field, we have to find ways to get him the ball.”
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