26 minute read


Job Title: Director

Job Overview

The director is responsible for interpreting the script and bringing his, or the producer's, creative vision to the screen. Usually the primary artistic and creative force behind the production, the director guides the actors’ performances to achieve that vision.

Writer/director Patrick Read Johnson explains, “The director is the guy the producer hires to drive the tanks into battle for him; to take all of the assembled team and corral them, cheerlead them, cajole them, work with them, and drive them like a herd, to extract from them their best work.”

“A director is a storyteller,” says director Mel Damski. “He interprets stories. He visualizes them and magically creates images, words, music, and tells a story the best way possible.”

Advice for Someone Seeking This Job

One of Johnson's messages in his film 5-25-77 is that it doesn't matter if you're from a small town with no contacts in the film industry—you can make it, just like he did. “It's not unattainable. The only thing that keeps you back is the belief that you can't get there. But you can get there from here. It's doable.

“An old producer gave me this advice once, when I was 18 years old and had just arrived in California. He said, ‘Are you willing to wait until you're 25 to be a director?’ (I was 18 at the time.) I said, ‘Sure.’ And he goes ‘35?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘45?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘55?’ ‘Absolutely.’ ‘65?’ I said, ‘I'm willing to wait until I'm 75.’ And he goes, ‘You might just make it.’

“What he meant was, if you think it would be sort of fun to try out being a director or producer or actor—any of the arts—forget it. It's not for you. You can't just see if it will be fun. If you can't not do it; if you can't find a way to see yourself doing anything else, if you can't sleep at night because you want so badly to do it, if all you think about and read about and talk about and want to be around is film information, if that stimuli is all that drives you, then you just might make it if you're willing to stop at almost nothing to do it. Then you've got to say to yourself, ‘How far am I willing to go?’ Are you willing to jump in your car with $200 in your pocket and drive across the country, end up with no money in your pocket and take any job you can? Are you willing to sleep on floors for two years and go get the second meal and the pizzas for the crew late at night? Are you willing to do all those things? If you are, you might make it. If you're not willing, if you even hesitate, forget it. This is good advice. This will save you years of heartache, because it is always a struggle.

“It's a struggle from the day you start, until the day you get knocked down, to the day you start again. I've been up and down and up and down. I've been in the industry professionally for twenty years—I've wanted to be in the industry since I was nine. I've been very rich and I've been very poor. I've been very successful and had total failures. I've been beaten up, and given accolades, then torn apart. The only reason I can still do it, and still smile about it and enjoy it, is that I can't not do it. I would persuade anyone who isn't willing to get extremely dirty and extremely tired and extremely frustrated and extremely beat-up for art, to just walk away.”

Professional Profile: Patrick Read Johnson, Writer, Director, Producer

About halfway through watching the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, Patrick Read Johnson decided he wanted to be a filmmaker. He was only six at the time. “My father had been waiting forever for this movie to come out. He had read a few tidbits in Time magazine and was absolutely riveted.” The family dressed up and drove to downtown Wadsworth, Illinois, population 750, to view the Kubrick epic at the local movie theater.

“Within the first few frames, I was just riveted.” Although he fell asleep before the movie ended, he recalls, “I did know halfway through that I needed to know how they did what I was seeing. I was fascinated by the visual nature, the manipulation of images to make me see things I thought were impossible.” As he was carried out of the theater nearly asleep, he turned to his parents and said, “I'm gonna direct movies when I grow up.”

From that time on, Johnson was fascinated with movies, particularly with discovering how various effects were created. He read everything he could find about the process, including a book on the making of 2001. By the age of nine, while his father was at work, he was stealing his Super-8 camera and making movies. “I'd run outside and set fire to my model airplanes and blow up armies of GI Joes, trying to imitate my favorite effects.”

In his teen years, he once tried to create weightlessness on film by suspending his little brother from the garage ceiling with piano wire. In the midst of shooting, he received a phone call from a friend. Forgetting his brother was still suspended in mid-air, he dashed out to meet the friend. “He hung there for another four hours and fell asleep.”

In high school Johnson studied theater, but his heart was set on filmmaking. Constantly searching for reading material about film, he discovered American Cinematographer magazine. Each month he poured over the pages, reading how the effects for his favorite films were created and dreaming of going to Hollywood to meet some of his visual effects heroes. One day he came home from school to discover his mother holding one of his American Cinematographer magazines while carrying on an animated telephone conversation. Finding a phone number on the masthead, she had telephoned the magazine's editor, Herb Lightman, and convinced him to not only introduce her son to his hero, Douglas Trumbull, but to allow the 15-year-old to tag along with him for a week while he interviewed filmmakers.

Johnson was met at the airport by friends of his mother, and each day was dropped off at the American Society of Cinematographer's clubhouse in Hollywood, where he would meet Lightman. “He showed me pictures of the old brilliant cinematographers and equipment. Then he said, ‘Let's start going on our adventures.’ I met Bill Abbot, who did the effects for Tora! Tora! Tora! and many other movies, and the grand master of effects, Linwood Dunn, who started on King Kong and did It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, all the way up to the original Star Trek TV series. He is just a genius.” An early inventor of visual effects, Linwood became a mentor for Johnson and the two remained lifelong friends.

As much as it thrilled him to meet these legendary filmmakers, Johnson's heart was set on meeting Douglas Trumball. “That was the whole reason for this trip—because I'd seen his work on 2001.I had to meet him.” Finally, with the week passing rapidly, Lightman called to say, “Tomorrow we're going down to the set of a movie called Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It's the next film for this young director Steven Spielberg, who did Jaws. Doug is working on the film.”

“We go down to the visual effects stage in Marina Del Ray, a building known as Future General, Doug's company at the time. We walked in and it was just magic.” Everywhere, it seemed, were FX people working on various visual effects. One of the first things to catch Johnson's eye was a big, black-draped stage with a giant Plexiglas aquarium. Using a layer of fresh water over a layer of saline solution, the look of cumulus clouds was being created by pumping white shoe polish between the layers and letting it float over the layer of salt water. Using fiber optic probes, different colored lights were fired to create the effect of UFOs hiding in the clouds. Fascinated by what he was seeing, Johnson hardly noticed the man dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, sneakers, and a ball cap, who sat down beside him and offered a can of Coke, then yelled “Cut!”

“The lights come on and everyone looks at me like I said it. I said, ‘No, no’ and I point to this guy sitting next to me. That's when I notice two very important things: his baseball cap says Jaws and his face is Steven Spielberg.” He tells them to set the shot up again and turns to me and says, ‘You're Pat, right?’ My jaw is hanging open and I say, “Yeah … .” And he says, ‘I'm Steven.’ I go, ‘I know.’ He gets up and says, ‘Herb told me you guys were coming. Come on and I'll show you around.’”

For the next couple of hours, Spielberg gave Johnson and Lightman a personally guided tour of the effects facility. “He's showing us the miniatures, the storyboards, the matt painting department, and talking about the design of the mothership and where he got his inspiration. I didn't really understand the full measure of what a director was yet. To me, Steven Spielberg was more of an executive. I didn't realize he was responsible for how this all looks and feels. Remember, I'm a 15-year-old kid from Wadsworth, Illinois. I don't know any better at this point. So while he's talking, I'm torn by this feeling that maybe while I'm listening to this very intelligent craft guy talk about this movie, I'm missing the chance to meet Doug Trumbull.”

While Spielberg and Lightman continued to talk about details of the film, Johnson wandered off in search of Trumbull. “Behind this one curtain there are all these guys building models and working on the mothership. Greg Jein, Ken Swenson, and Dave Jones—all these heroes of mine in the model making world, just sitting around having their Cokes, eating junk food, and working on the mothership.” The group invited Johnson to come sit with them while he asked a multitude of questions. Soon he was invited to help them attach fiber optics to the mothership. “I'm always searching for the ones I did.”

What do you like least about your job?

“What I like least about it are the overriding economic concerns. It's not like we should take someone's money and go off and spend it any way we like, without regard to having to pay that money back. There are legitimate concerns, but unfortunately there seems to be a dearth of executive and studio personnel who truly, truly understand the filmmaking process, the actual creative end. Rather than admit they don't necessarily know what's going on and look like fools, they'd rather act like they know it all and start making decisions, just to be seen making decisions.”Patrick Read Johnson

What do you love most about your job?

“What I like most is the opportunity to work with a lot of incredibly talented people: everybody from the camera team to the art team, the costume designer, prop, makeup, and visual effects people, and actorsreally talented actors. I have really had golden opportunities, so far, to work with some amazing actors: some who are Academy Award winners and some who have never acted a day in their life, and both have been rewarding. Getting together with a whole bunch of creative people and essentially putting on a play is as much fun as I can imagine.”Patrick Read Johnson

While wondering if he will ever get to meet Doug Trumbull, a door suddenly blasts open and a big burly guy comes charging in, obviously in a hurry and not in a good mood. “Herb goes, ‘Hey Doug, how ya doin'?’ And he's like, ‘Fine, fine. I've got some fire to put out.’ He's walking along pointing at things, still moving fast, and Herb is running along trying to catch up and not knock over models. Herb says, ‘Doug, this is the young man I told you about whose big dream it has been to come out to California and meet you.’ Doug turns and he goes, ‘Hey,’ and he turns away and walks off, leaving me standing there. You can see the camera just pulling away and this little doe-eyed kid going, ‘Oh … Hi …’ That was the last I saw of Doug. I thought, ‘Okay, I can go home.’”

With one day remaining, Lightman suggested that Johnson might want to take in some of the tourist attractions since he wasn't sure the film he was covering that day would be very exciting. “He said, ‘The name is pretty silly; it's called Star Wars.’” Having come out to see all he could of filmmaking, Johnson decided to tag along. “We pull into this industrial building parking lot where the Death Star is laid out before us—I don't even know what the Death Star is yet. Then I notice this giant, two-story hot tub. In it were all these long-haired guys smoking cigarettes and racing radio-controlled cars around the parking lot. We walk in the place and cool our heels in the waiting room. It was one of those bad industrial waiting rooms with a couple of couches and some copies of Daily Variety on the table. On the back wall that leads to the stage is a Mylar teaser poster for Star Wars. All it said was ‘Coming to your galaxy this summer.’” Apparently behind schedule, beneath the tag line someone had written “Or maybe next summer” and then on a piece of masking tape below that someone wrote, “Or maybe the summer after that,” and so on.

“I thought, ‘These guys are having fun!’ Then suddenly this titanic man—he had to be seven feet tall—comes bounding out of his office and says, ‘I'm John Dykstra. Come on in and let me show you some stuff.’” Everywhere were prototypes and models for X-Wings, the Blockade Runner, Landspeeder, TIE Fighters, and the Death Star. “They are all made out of dragster model kits like I used in my own model building. I recognize every single part. It was really amazing.”

Before the tour is over, Dykstra shows them the Millennium Falcon, then takes them to an upstairs area to view some of the film footage. “It was this black tarped-off area with these ratty old couches, old popcorn on the floor, and a big steam-powered projector that looks like it will smudge any film that goes through it. He turns on the projector and Herb and I are thinking, ‘This guy is nuts.’ The first thing we see is the Star Destroyer going overhead. No sound, no music, just the Star Destroyer, and tears sprang from my eyes. Herb and I are mesmerized, staring at this. We look at each other and Herb just starts writing—fast. With that first shot I realize I'm about to see something unbelievable.

“I got on my little Eastern Airlines flight and went back to Wadsworth, Illinois, population 750.I had to figure out how I was going to spend the rest of my life in that town (Hollywood) now that I'd seen all of this. It was just incredible; it was life changing.” Back in school, Johnson tried to explain to his classmates what he'd experienced, and that this incredible movie called Star Wars would be opening on May 25, 1977.

His senior year, Johnson loaded up on classes so he could graduate early. He went directly to Illinois State University for a semester, before packing up in 1980 and moving to Los Angeles with the intention of going to USC Film School. “I had $200 in my pocket when I left. By the time I got to L.A., I had about $20 left.”

Armed with sketches, drawings, and spaceship models he had created, Johnson knocked on the door of Brick Price Movie Miniatures and said, “Hi. I just moved from Illinois and I need a job.” Asked if he could drive in addition to building models, he answered “Yes” and was told to get a time card. “I started working that day.” Starting out as a gofer, he moved up to model making, and then supervisor on some projects. He remained there for two years, working on commercials, industrial displays, and models for NASA and The Smithsonian Institute, all the while writing screenplays.

One night at a “mid-level Hollywood party,” he was introduced to producer Cassius Weathersby, who was looking for medium-to-low budget movie projects to develop at 20th Century Fox. An introduction was made and Johnson was asked to pitch some of his ideas. “I pitched him this sort of alien on earth story.” Weatherby loved the idea and made an appointment for Johnson to pitch the idea to Richard Berger, then president of production, and to story editor David Madden. The idea was so well received that “they sort of yanked me by the shirt collar and dragged me down the hall to Sherry Lansing and said, ‘Do that again.’ I basically acted out the movie. I was standing up and moving around and playing all the parts. I got about five minutes to pitch and she said, ‘I don't know what this is, but I like it. Let's do it.’”

At 19, Johnson had landed a deal with a major studio and started to work on the script for his science fiction film. Three drafts later, the studio was sold and Johnson was back building models at Brick Price. “I ate some crow.” He later worked for Mark Stetson and ShowScan, progressing to visual effects supervisor. Along the way he sold a few more scripts, and the desire to direct grew more intense after directing the second unit for Dead Heat. After seven years, Johnson had grown weary of model making and channeled his energies into a project called Martians!!!, which he co-wrote with friend Scott Lawrence Alexander, and hoped to direct.

The pair loaded the “wacky” film with special effects and determined that, using contacts such as FX friends Scott Ressler and John Knoll (then at ILM working on The Abyss), they could make a film with a $10 million look for $2 million. Friend and producer Jason Clark (Stuart Little) introduced the pair to a development executive for a Yugoslavian businessman who agreed to give them $1.75 million. Releasing the film was the best offer they were going to get, so they took the deal. “It was one of those ‘we don't know that it's impossible so we're going to get it done’ type movies. And we did. It would never be a diamond, but when we finished, it was a flawed, but fun, little ruby.”

Johnson assumed the film would go direct to video, but that he would have something to show which he had directed. Word about the film spread through the Hollywood community, making its way to Steven Spielberg's ear. “He called my representative and asked for a copy of the movie. A couple hours later I got a call saying, ‘You're going over to meet with Kathy Kennedy, Frank Marshall, and Steven tomorrow. They want to pick up your movie for Disney to distribute. They loved it—Steven loved it!’”

It would be the first time Johnson had seen Spielberg since their meeting on the set of Close Encounters. “Even though Steven was very gracious and told me to come see him if I ever got out to L.A., I never wanted to be one of those people that just sort of showed up on the set … I wanted to show him what I could do when I was ready.” Spielberg championed the film to Jeffrey Katzenberg at Touchstone, and convinced him to buy the film. Then, for the next several months, executives at Disney set out to recut and reshape the film, eventually destroying its gem-like qualities, and releasing it as Spaced Invaders. The film was into profit the first weekend of release and went on to make several times over its cost in profit.


* Johnson credits his success to perseverance. “In the words of Winston Churchill, ‘Never, never, never, never, never give up.’ The minute you give up, the minute your spirit is broken by all that can be thrown at you in Hollywood, you'll never get up again. They won't let youor you might not let yourself. So you just can't give up.”Patrick Read Johnson

* “If you hit a wall or miss an opportunity, or you've blown a relationship or you've made the wrong turn in any step in the making of a film, that doesn't mean you're a bad human being, or that you're an incapable director or actor or artist or writer or whatever. You have to simply say, ‘Okay, that didn't work. I'm a rat in a maze and I've learned that that direction gets me shocked. Now I'm going to move in this direction.’ That's the only thing you can do if you're going to survive in Hollywood. Good luck to us all.”Patrick Read Johnson

At the same time, both Disney and Universal became interested in Johnson's script Starsailor and both were courting him. “Jeffrey Katzenberg was very honest and said, ‘We'd like to make Starsailor, but it will take a lot of development,’” while Universal said they loved the script and were essentially promising a green light on it and other projects. “I made the mistake a lot of young filmmakers make and played one side against the other. I finally ended up at Universal with a huge deal and nice offices, great computer equipment, and a screening area. I made them pay for me to be there, which, of course, I ultimately had to pay for when all those expenses were charged to my project later.”

While at Universal, Johnson began developing Dragonheart, a film he wanted to direct. Although she was more interested in Starsailor, Raffaella De Laurentiis sent Johnson off to the family's hotel in Bora Bora to eat, drink, and work on the script for Dragonheart. Returning to the States, he realized he needed help and partnered up with Chuck Pogue (The Fly). Together, they came up with a script that Universal green-lighted, and Johnson was off to scout locations in Spain with Laurentiis.

Every agency in Hollywood, including Johnson's representatives at CAA, championed the project and sent over top stars to vie for roles. Johnson had conceived of Draco, the dragon, with Sean Connery in mind. “Sean had read the script and expressed interest in doing the role.” Liam Neeson was his choice for the knight. The Henson Creature Shop would build the dragon. But it was not to be. When he delivered test footage of the dragon, Universal misinterpreted it as representative of the quality level of the film Johnson would direct. “I was getting in a lot of fights with Universal.” The studio was comfortable with Johnson being the director of a $2 million movie. Making the jump to a $20 million movie overnight made studio executives nervous. Eventually, Universal took away the directorship of Dragonheart and gave it to someone else.

In an effort to make up some of the loss, Universal offered Johnson a film entitled The Day Before Midnight, which was later developed into the ground. It was time to move on. At about the same time, he received a call from John Hughes, asking if he was interested in Dennis the Menace. After Johnson had finished Spaced Invaders, Hughes brought him a serious project called Reach the Rock. At the time, Johnson did not feel that he was ready for such a dramatic piece and passed on the project. Hired to direct Dennis, he relocated to Chicago and started “designing it, casting it, and getting locations going.” When his vision for the film strayed too far from Hughes's concept, Johnson was replaced as director.

As a concession, Warner Bros., the studio behind Dennis, gave Johnson offices and he started developing Speed Racer, which ultimately never got off the ground. Nearly a year to the day after Dennis the Menace, Hughes called Johnson and offered him Baby's Day Out. Although it was not an ideal project for his talents and passion, he took the job. “Remember, at this point I'd only directed one $2 million dollar picture, and this had a budget of $50 million.” Having to make numerous compromises, the film never achieved Johnson's vision of what it could be, but it did get made with him as the director.

“While Baby's Day Out was in postproduction, I was flying to San Francisco, to Skywalker Ranch, to work on the mix. On the flight I saw a movie called Cool Runnings. I remember being sent that script early in my heyday of being the newly discovered fair-haired boy and thinking ‘This is never going to be a movie.’” Noting that the film was produced by Dawn Steele, he telephoned manager Melinda Jason when the flight landed and asked her to tell Steele that he was a fan of the movie. Three hours later, Steele called him with an invitation to lunch when he came to L.A.

Over lunch, Steele told Johnson that she wanted to work with him. An hour later she sent him a script entitled A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune, which later became Angus. At first he shied away from the project, but Steele was relentless and finally he agreed to direct the project. Again, studio executives imposed changes to his vision for the film. “It was a challenging experience, but one I'm ultimately proud of.”

Post Angus, Johnson continued to develop projects and write. Then came a call from David Madden, president of production for Fox TV movies, asking him to take over a project called When Good Ghouls Go Bad. “He said ‘You're going to have to completely rewrite it and you'll have to go to Australia to make it. You'll only have $3 million and so many days … but it will be you and I creatively producing it.’ I said, ‘You got me.’

“Now I'm working on 5-25-77, which is the story of a young kid from Wadsworth, Illinois, who got to see Star Wars and Close Encounters before anybody else … it's American Graffiti on the night that Star Wars came out. It's about finding the courage to take a step that no one believed I could take. It's very heartfelt.” Carrie Fisher is slated to play Johnson's mom. Truth is sometimes better than fiction.

Special Skills

Mel Damski says a director must be good at “using the camera to tell the story, talking to actors, interpreting the script, and understanding what the important story points are.” A director also must be able to get along with people and inspire them to work as a team.

Advice for Someone Seeking This Job

“My first advice is to read, read, read,” says Damski. “I think that's the best education you can get. Be as aware of the world around you as possible. Directing is about storytelling and understanding human nature. You have to be a keen observer of human behavior; that's very important. You've got to have what I call a bullshit meter, so that when somebody is giving a line reading and it rings false, you have to A) know it rings false; and B) know how to communicate with the actor to find the truth and interpretation. I think it helps to be a participating member of the human race. (By the way, there are people with none of these qualities who are very successful filmmakers. They are dictatorial, self-centered, and narcissistic.)

“I think the best way to become a director is through screenwriting. That's the easiest because you can do it on your own … Many directors come from cinematography, from acting, and from the stage. There are a lot of different ways to approach it. The important thing is you've got to understand the story. If people go into directing thinking it's all about getting sexy shots and clever angles, they are going to miss the boat.

“Because movies are so expensive to make, you have to establish credibility so that someone will hire you. That's a hard thing to do when you're young. That's an important part of the process: to somehow establish credibility. The easiest way to do that would be to write a terrific script, then show people a short film so that you can demonstrate that you can direct your own script.”

Professional Profile: Mel Damski, Director

Although filmmaking was a second career for director Mel Damski, he has always been a storyteller. In high school and college he served as sports editor for his schools’ newspapers. A linebacker, he earned a football scholarship to Colgate University, where he majored in English literature. After graduation he landed a job as a sportswriter, but soon found the profession limiting and moved to general assignment reporting for the New York based paper Newsday. “The problem with sports is you've got to write so many column inches, even if it's a really boring game you're covering. Whereas when you're a general assignment reporter, you don't write unless there is a story.”

What do you like least about your job?

“I think that the most difficult part of my job is when egos obstruct the creative process.”Mel Damski

What do you love most about your job?

“I like the creative rush. I like making things up, interpreting, and having my own unique vision … The most important thing in my life is to be able to create something.”Mel Damski

Still feeling unfulfilled as an assignment reporter, Damski considered becoming a film critic. “I went to the University of Denver, taught journalism as a graduate teaching assistant, and studied film in their mass communications program. I thought I would return to New York as a film critic.” Damski soon realized he loved making movies much more than writing about them. He applied to the American Film Institute (AFI) and was fortunate to be one of ten directors admitted into the program that year.

“It was an awakening. It was so fascinating to study movies. To watch them over and over, forwards and backwards, in slow motion, and realize all of the decisions that went into making a film. I was excited by that.

“The program at AFI was very good because I studied the best filmmakers in the world and a lot of them came to speak to us. I sat at the feet of [Bernardo] Bertolucci and [Steven] Spielberg, and Fritz Lang. It enabled me to take a very high view of filmmaking. It's very important to have a point of view and bring something to the table, my own unique vision of the material.”

During his time at AFI, Damski was accepted into another program that afforded him the opportunity to serve as an apprentice to Stanley Kramer on the film Oklahoma Crude. “I was with Stanley every day throughout preproduction and the production of the film. I learned a tremendous amount about the practical aspects of how movies are made, what all the people on set do and their responsibilities. That helped me a lot when I made my AFI film.”


* You have to be resilient. “If you can't deal with a tremendous amount of rejection and failure, it's going to be very tough to succeed in this business.”Mel Damski

For his AFI project, Damski adapted the short story “The Lost Phoebe” by Theodore Dreiser into a half hour 16mm color film. “It was about a man whose wife died and he can't accept the fact that she's dead. He goes around to the neighbors asking where she is. It's how the community deals with him.” Through the film, Damski attracted the attention of an agent, who immediately secured work for him, directing an episode of Barnaby Jones. The job enabled him to join the Directors Guild (DGA). The difficult part was coming up with the $2,500 initiation fee. Between that and taxes, he actually lost money on that first job.

Soon after, Damski got the chance to direct an episode of Lou Grant, where his unique storytelling vision earned him further opportunities and recognition. “I shot three minutes of dialogue in one take. In those days, they never did that; the camera just went from one character to another.” After seeing Damski's first round of dailies, the producers hired him to direct several more episodes. His work also earned him his first Emmy nomination and an invitation to direct an episode of the hit series M*A*S*H.

Damski has refused to allow himself to be typecast as a director of any one particular genre by working on a wide spectrum of films like Mischief and Yellowbeard, and television series such as Ally McBeal, American Gothic, Any Day Now, Boston Public, Charmed, Chicago Hope, Early Edition, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Picket Fences, and The Practice. “I've tried to constantly mix it up. My feeling is if you stand in one place, they will nail your feet to the floor.”

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