Author Archives: Dayna McCallum

Technicolor Experience Center launches with HP Mars Home Planet

By Dayna McCallum

Technicolor’s Tim Sarnoff and Marcie Jastrow oversaw the official opening of the Technicolor Experience Center (TEC), with the help of HP’s Sean Young and Rick Champagne, on June 15. The kickoff event also featured the announcement that TEC is teaming up with HP to develop HP Mars Home Planet, an experimental VR experience to reinvent life on Mars for one million humans.

The purpose-built TEC space is located in Blackwelder creative park, a business district designed specifically for the needs of creative and media companies in Culver City. The center, dedicated to bringing artists and scientists together to explore immersive media, covers almost 27,000 square feet, with 3,000 square feet dedicated to motion capture. The TEC serves as a hub connecting Technicolor’s creative houses and research labs across the globe, including an R&D team from France that made an appearance during event via a remote demo, with technology partners, such as HP.

Sarnoff, Technicolor deputy CEO and president of production services, said, “The TEC is about realizing the aspirations of all the players who are part of the nascent immersive ecosystem we work in, from content creation, to content distribution and content consumption. Designing and delivering immersive experiences will require a massive convergence of artistic, technological and economic talent. They will have to come together productively. That is why the TEC has been formed. It is designed to be a practical place where we take theoretical constructs and move systematically to tactical implementation through a creative and dynamic process of experimentation.”

The HP Mars Home Planet project is a global, immersive media collaboration uniting engineers, architects, designers, artists and students to design an urban area on Mars in a VR environment. The project will be built on the terrain from Fusion’s “Mars 2030” game, which is based on research, images, and expertise based on NASA research. In addition to HP, Fusion and TEC, partners include Nvidia, Unreal Engine, Autodesk and HTCVive. Additional details will be released at Siggraph 2017.

Young, worldwide segment manager for product development and AEC for HP Inc., said of the Mars project, “To ensure fidelity and professional-grade quality and a fantastic end-user experience, the TEC is going to oversee the virtual reality development process of the work that is going to be done by collaborators from all over the world. It is an incredible opportunity for anybody from anywhere in the world that is interested in VR to work with Technicolor.”

Creating sounds of science for Bill Nye: Science Guy

By Jennifer Walden

Bill Nye, the science hero of a generation of school children, has expanded his role in the science community over the years. His transformation from TV scientist to CEO of The Planetary Society (the world’s largest non-profit space advocacy group) is the subject of Bill Nye: Science Guy — a documentary directed by David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg.

The doc premiered in the US at the SXSW Film Festival and had its international premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto.

Peter Albrechtsen – Credit: Povl Thomsen

Supervising sound editor/sound designer Peter Albrechtsen, MPSE, started working with directors Alvarado and Sussberg in 2013 on their first feature-length documentary The Immortalists. When they began shooting the Bill Nye documentary in 2015, Albrechtsen was able to see the rough cuts and started collecting sounds and ambiences for the film. “I love being part of projects very early on. I got to discuss some sonic and musical ideas with David and Jason. On documentaries, the actual sound design schedule isn’t typically very long. It’s great knowing the vibe of the film as early as I can so I can then be more focused during the sound editing process. I know what the movie needs and how I should prioritize my work. That was invaluable on a complicated, complex and multilayered movie like this one.”

Before diving in, Albrechtsen, dialogue editor Jacques Pedersen, sound effects editor Morten Groth Brandt and sound effects recordist/assistant sound designer Mikkel Nielsen met up for a jam session — as Albrechtsen calls it — to share the directors’ notes for sound and discuss their own ideas. “It’s a great way of getting us all on the same page and to really use everyone’s talents,” he says.

Albrechtsen and his Danish sound crew had less than seven weeks for sound editorial at Offscreen in Copenhagen. They divided their time evenly between dialogue editing and sound effects editing. During that time, Foley artist Heikki Kossi spent three days on Foley at H5 Film Sound in Kokkola, Finland.

Foley artist Heikki Kossi. Credit: Clas-Olav Slotte

Bill Nye: Science Guy mixes many different media sources — clips from Bill Nye’s TV shows from the ‘90s, YouTube videos, home videos on 8mm film, TV broadcasts from different eras, as well as the filmmakers’ own footage. It’s a potentially headache-inducing combination. “Some of the archival material was in quite bad shape, but my dialogue editor Jacques Pedersen is a magician with iZotope RX and he did a lot of healthy cleaning up of all the rough pieces and low-res stuff,” says Albrechtsen. “The 8mm videos actually didn’t have any sound, so Heikki Kossi did some Foley that helped it to come alive when we needed it to.”

Sound Design
Albrechtsen’s sound edit was also helped by the directors’ dedication to sound. They were able to acquire the original sound effects library from Bill Nye’s ‘90s TV show, making it easy for the post sound team to build out the show’s soundscape from stereo to surround, and also to make it funnier. “A lot of humor in the old TV show came from the imaginative soundtrack that was often quite cartoonish, exaggerated and hilariously funny,” he explains. “I’ve done sound for quite a few documentaries now and I’ve never tried adding so many cartoonish sound effects to a track. It made me laugh.”

The directors’ dedication goes even deeper, with director Sussberg handling the production sound himself when they’re out shooting. He records dialogue with both a boom mic and radio mics, and also records wild tracks of room tones and ambience. He even captures special sound signatures for specific locations when applicable.

For example, Nye visits the creationist theme park called Noah’s Ark, built by Christian fundamentalist Ken Ham. The indoor park features life-size dioramas and animatronics to explain creationism. There are lots of sound effects and demonstrations playing from multiple speaker setups. Sussberg recorded all of them, providing Albrechtsen with the means of creating an authentic sound collage.

“People might think we added lots of sounds for these sequences, but actually we just orchestrated what was already there,” says Albrechtsen. “At moments, it’s like a cacophony of noises, with corny dinosaur screams, savage human screams and violent war noises. When I heard the sounds from the theme park that David and Jason had recorded, I didn’t believe my own ears. It’s so extreme.”

Albrechtsen approaches his sound design with texture in mind. Not every sound needs to be clean. Adding texture, like crackling or hiss, can change the emotional impact of a sound. For example, while creating the sound design for the archival footage of several rocket launches, Albrechtsen pulled clean effects of rocket launches and explosions from Tonsturm’s “Massive Explosions” sound effects library and transferred those recordings to old NAGRA tape. “The special, warm, analogue distortion that this created fit perfectly with the old, dusty images.”

In one of Albrechtsen’s favorite sequences in the film, there’s a failure during launch and the rocket explodes. The camera falls over and the video glitches. He used different explosions panned around the room, and he panned several low-pitched booms directly to the subwoofer, using Waves LoAir plug-in for added punch. “When the camera falls over, I panned explosions into the surrounds and as the glitches appear I used different distorted textures to enhance the images,” he says. “Pete Horner did an amazing job on mixing that sequence.”

For the emotional sequences, particularly those exploring Nye’s family history, and the genetic disorder passed down from Nye’s father to his two siblings, Albrechtsen chose to reduce the background sounds and let the Foley pull the audience in closer to Nye. “It’s amazing what just a small cloth rustle can do to get a feeling of being close to a person. Foley artist Heikki Kossi is a master at making these small sounds significant and precise, which is actually much more difficult than one would think.”

For example, during a scene in which Nye and his siblings visit a clinic Albrechtsen deliberately chose harsh, atonal backgrounds that create an uncomfortable atmosphere. Then, as Nye shares his worries about the disease, Albrechtsen slowly takes the backgrounds out so that only the delicate Foley for Nye plays. “I love creating multilayered background ambiences and they really enhanced many moments in the film. When we removed these backgrounds for some of the more personal, subjective moments the effect was almost spellbinding. Sound is amazing, but silence is even better.”

Bill Nye: Science Guy has layers of material taking place in both the past and present, in outer space and in Nye’s private space, Albrechtsen notes. “I was thinking about how to make them merge more. I tried making many elements of the soundtrack fit more with each other.”

For instance, Nye’s brother has a huge model train railway set up. It’s a legacy from their childhood. So when Nye visits his childhood home, Albrechtsen plays the sound of a distant train. In the 8mm home movies, the Nye family is at the beach. Albrechtsen’s sound design includes echoes of seagulls and waves. Later in the film, when Nye visits his sister’s home, he puts in distant seagulls and waves. “The movie is constantly jumping through different locations and time periods. This was a way of making the emotional storyline clearer and strengthening the overall flow. The sound makes the images more connected.”

One significant story point is Nye’s growing involvement with The Planetary Society. Before Carl Sagan’s death, Sagan conceptualized a solar sail — a sail for use in space that could harness the sun’s energy and use it as a means of propulsion. The Planetary Society worked hard to actualize Sagan’s solar sail idea. Albrechtsen needed to give the solar sail a sound in the film. “How does something like that sound? Well, in the production sound you couldn’t really hear the solar sail and when it actually appeared it just sounded like boring, noisy cloth rustle. The light sail really needed an extraordinary, unique sound to make you understand the magnitude of it.”

So they recorded different kinds of materials, in particular a Mylar blanket, which has a glittery and reflective surface. Then Albrechtsen tried different pitches and panning of those recordings to create a sense of its extraordinary size.

While they handled post sound editorial in Denmark, the directors were busy cutting the film stateside with picture editor Annu Lilja. When working over long distances, Albrechtsen likes to send lots of QuickTimes with stereo downmixes so the directors can hear what’s happening. “For this film, I sent a handful of sound sketches to David and Jason while they were busy finishing the picture editing,” he explains. “Since we’ve done several projects together we know each other very well. David and Jason totally trust me and I know that they like their soundtracks to be very detailed, dynamic and playful. They want the sound to be an integral part of the storytelling and are open to any input. For this movie, they even did a few picture recuts because of some sound ideas I had.”

The Mix
For the two-week final mix, Albrechtsen joined re-recording mixer Pete Horner at Skywalker Sound in Marin County, California. Horner started mixing on the John Waters stage — a small mix room featuring a 5.1 setup of Meyer Sound’s Acheron speakers and an Avid ICON D-Command control surface, while Albrechtsen finished the sound design and premixed the effects against William Ryan Fritch’s score in a separate editing suite. Then Albrechtsen sat with Horner for another week, as Horner crafted the final 5.1 mix.

One of Horner’s mix challenges was to keep the dialogue paramount while still pushing the layered soundscapes that help tell the story. Horner says, “Peter [Albrechtsen] provided a wealth of sounds to work with, which in the spirit of the original Bill Nye show were very playful. But this, of course, presented a challenge because there were so many sounds competing for attention. I would say this is a problem that most documentaries would be envious of, and I certainly appreciated it.”

Once they had the effects playing along with the dialogue and music, Horner and Albrechtsen worked together to decide which sounds were contributing the most and which were distracting from the story. “The result is a wonderfully rich, sometimes manic track,” says Horner.

Albrechtsen adds, “On a busy movie like this, it’s really in the mix where everything comes together. Pete [Horner] is a truly brilliant mixer and has the same musical approach to sound as me. He is an amazing listener. The whole soundtrack — both sound and score — should really be like one piece of music, with ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys.”

Horner explains their musical approach to mixing as “the understanding that the entire palette of sound coming through the faders can be shaped in a way that elicits an emotional response in the audience. Music is obviously musical, but sound effects are also very musical since they are made up of pitches and rhythmic sounds as well. I’ve come to feel that dialogue is also musical — the person speaking is embedding their own emotions into the way they speak using both pitch (inflection or emphasis) and rhythm (pace and pauses).”

“I’ll go even further to say that the way the images are cut by the picture editor is inherently musical. The pace of the cuts suggests rhythm and tempo, and a ‘hard cut’ can feel like a strong downbeat, as emotionally rich as any orchestral stab. So I think a musical approach to mixing is simply internalizing the ‘music’ that is already being communicated by the composer, the sound designer, the picture editor and the characters on the screen, and with the guidance of the director shaping the palette of available sounds to communicate the appropriate complexity of emotion,” says Horner.

In the mix, Horner embraces the documentary’s intention of expressing the duality of Nye’s life: his celebrity versus his private life. He gives the example of the film’s opening, which starts with sounds of a crowd gathering to see Nye. Then it cuts to Nye backstage as he’s preparing for his performance by quietly tying his bowtie in a mirror. “Here the exceptional Foley work of Heikki Kossi creates the sense of a private, intimate moment, contrasting with the voice of the announcer, which I treated as if it’s happening through the wall in a distant auditorium.”

Next it cuts to that announcer, and his voice is clearly amplified and echoing all around the auditorium of excited fans. There’s an interview with a fan and his friends who are waiting to take their seats. The fan describes his experience of watching Nye’s TV show in the classroom as a kid and how they’d all chant “Bill, Bill, Bill” as the TV cart rolled in. Underneath, plays the sound of the auditorium crowd chanting “Bill, Bill, Bill” as the picture cuts to Nye waiting in wings.

Horner says, “Again, the Foley here keeps us close to Bill while the crowd chants are in deep echo. Then the TV show theme kicks on, blasting through the PA. I embraced the distorted nature of the production recording and augmented it with hall echo and a liberal use of the subwoofer. The energy in this moment is at a peak as Bill takes the stage exclaiming, “I love you guys!” and the title card comes on. This is a great example of how the scene was already cut to communicate the dichotomy within Bill, between his private life and his public persona. By recognizing that intention, the sound team was able to express that paradox more viscerally.”


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. 

A chat with Emmy-winning comedy editor Sue Federman

This sitcom vet talks about cutting Man With A Plan and How I Met Your Mother.

By Dayna McCallum

The art of sitcom editing is overly enjoyed and underappreciated. While millions of people literally laugh out loud every day enjoying their favorite situation comedies, very few give credit to the maestro behind the scenes, the sitcom editor.

Sue Federman is one of the best in the business. Her work on the comedy How I Met Your Mother earned three Emmy wins and six nominations. Now the editor of CBS’ new series, Man With A Plan, Federman is working with comedy legends Matt LeBlanc and James Burrows to create another classic sitcom.

However, Federman’s career in entertainment didn’t start in the cutting room; it started in the orchestra pit! After working as a professional violinist with orchestras in Honolulu and San Francisco, she traded in her bow for an Avid.

We sat down to talk with Federman about the ins and outs of sitcom editing, that pesky studio audience, and her journey from musician to editor.

When did you get involved with your show, and what is your workflow like?
I came onto Man With A Plan (MWAP) after the original pilot had been picked up. They recast one of the leads, so there was a reshoot of about 75 percent of the pilot with our new Andi, Liza Snyder. My job was to integrate the new scenes with the old. It was interesting to preserve the pace and feel of the original and to be free to bring my own spin to the show.

The workflow of the show is pretty fast since there’s only one editor on a traditional audience sitcom. I usually put a show together in two to three days, then work with the producers for one to two days, and then send a pretty finished cut to the studio/network.

What are the biggest challenges you face as an editor on a traditional half-hour comedy?
One big challenge is managing two to three episodes at a time — assembling one show while doing producer or studio/network notes on another, as well as having to cut preshot playbacks for show night, which can be anywhere from three to eight minutes of material that has to be cut pretty quickly.

Another challenge is the live audience laughter. It’s definitely a unique part of this kind of show. I worked on How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM) for nine years without an audience, so I could completely control the pacing. I added fake laughs that fit the performances and things like that. When I came back to a live audience show, I realized the audience is a big part of the way the performances are shaped. I’ve learned all kinds of ways to manipulate the laughs and, hopefully, still preserve the spontaneous live energy of the show.

How would you compare cutting comedy to drama?
I haven’t done much drama, but I feel like the pace of comedy is faster in every regard, and I really enjoy working at a fast pace. Also, as opposed to a drama or anything shot single-camera, the coverage on a multi-cam show is pretty straightforward, so it’s really all about performance and pacing. There’s not a lot of music in a multi-cam, but you spend a lot of time working with the audience tracks.

What role would you say an editor has in helping to make a “bit” land in a half-hour comedy?
It’s performance, timing and camera choices — and when it works, it feels great. I’m always amazed at how changing an edit by a frame or two can make something pop. Same goes for playing something wider or closer depending on the situation.

MWAP is shot before a live studio audience. How does that affect your rhythm?
The audience definitely affects the rhythm of the show. I try to preserve the feeling of the laughs and still keep the show moving. A really long laugh is great on show night, but usually we cut it down a bit and play off more reactions. The actors on MWAP are great because they really know how to “ride” the laughs and not break character. I love watching great comedic actors, like the cast of I Love Lucy, for example, who were incredible at holding for laughs. It’s a real asset and very helpful to the editor.

Can you describe your process? And what system do you edit the show on?
I’ve always used the Avid Media Composer. Dabbled with Final Cut, but prefer Avid. I assemble the whole show in one sequence and go scene by scene. I watch all of the takes of a scene and make choices for each section or sometimes for each line. Then I chunk the scene together, sometimes putting in two choices for a line or area. I then cut into the big pieces to select the cameras for each shot. After that, I go back and find the rhythm of the scene — tightening the pace, cutting into the laughs and smoothing them.

After the show is put together, I go back and watch the whole thing again, pretending that I’ve never seen it, which is a challenge. That makes me adjust it even more. I try to send out a pretty polished first cut, without cutting any dialogue to show the producers everything, which seems to make the whole process go faster. I’m lucky that the directors on MWAP are very seasoned and don’t really give me many notes. Jimmy Burrows and Pam Fryman have directed almost all of the episodes, and I don’t send out a separate cut to either of them. Particularly with Pam, as I’ve worked with her for about 11 years, so we have a nice shorthand.

How do assistant editors work into the mix?
My assistant, Dan “Steely” Esparza, is incredible! He allows me to show up to work every day and not think about anything other than cutting the show. He’s told me, even though I always ask, that he prefers not to be an editor, so I don’t push him in that direction. He is excellent at visual effects and enjoys them, so I always have him do those. On HIMYM, we had quite a lot of visual effects, so he was pretty busy there. But on MWAP, it’s mostly rough composites for blue/greenscreen scenes and painting out errant boom shadows, boom mics and parts of people.

Your work on HIMYM was highly lauded. What are some of your favorite “editing” moments from that show and what were some of the biggest challenges they threw at you?
I really loved working on that show — every episode was unique, and it really gave me opportunities to grow as an editor. Carter Bays and Craig Thomas were amazing problem solvers. They were able to look at the footage and make something completely different out of it if need be. I remember times when a scene wasn’t working or was too long, and they would write some narration, record the temp themselves, and then we’d throw some music over it and make it into a montage.

Some of the biggest editing challenges were the music videos/sequences that were incorporated into episodes. There were three complete Robin Sparkles videos and many, many other musical pieces, almost always written by Carter and Craig. In “P.S. I Love You,” they incorporated her last video into kind of a Canadian Behind the Music about the demise of Robin Sparkles, and that was pretty epic for a sitcom. The gigantic “Subway Wars” was another big challenge, in that it had 85 “scenelets.” It was a five-way race around Manhattan to see who could get to a restaurant where Woody Allen was supposedly eating first, with each person using a different mode of transportation. Crazy fun and also extremely challenging to fit into a sitcom schedule.

You started in the business as a classical musician. How does your experience as a professional violinist influence your work as an editor?
I think the biggest thing is having a good feeling for the rhythm of whatever I’m working on. I love to be able to change the tempo and to make something really pop. And when asked to change the pacing or cut sections out, when doing various people’s notes, being able to embrace that too. Collaborating is a big part of being a musician, and I think that’s helped me a lot in working with the different personalities. It’s not unlike responding to a conductor or playing chamber music. Also having an understanding of phrasing and the overall structure of a piece is valuable, even though it was musical phrasing and structure, it’s not all that different.

Obviously, whenever there’s actual music involved, I feel pretty comfortable handling it or choosing the right piece for a scene. If classical music’s involved, I have a great deal of knowledge that can be helpful. For example, in HIMYM, we needed something to be a theme for Barney’s Playbook antics. I tried a few things, and we landed on the Mozart Rondo Alla Turca, which I’ve been hearing lately in the Progresso Soup commercials.

How did you make the transition from the concert hall to the editing room?
It’s a long story! I was playing in the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra and was feeling stuck. I was lucky enough to find an amazing career counseling organization that helped me open my mind to all kinds of possibilities, and they helped me to discover the perfect job for me. It was quite a journey, but the main thing was to be open to anything and identify the things about myself that I wanted to use. I learned that I loved music (but not playing the violin), puzzles, stories and organizing — so editing!

I sold a bow, took the summer off from playing and enrolled in a summer production workshop at USC. I wasn’t quite ready to move to LA, so I went back to San Francisco and began interning at a small commercial editing house. I was answering phones, emptying the dishwasher, getting coffees and watching the editing, all while continuing to play in the Ballet Orchestra. The people were great and gave me opportunities to learn whenever possible. Luckily for me, they were using the Avid before it came to TV and features. Eventually, there was a very rough documentary that one of the editors wanted to cut, but it wasn’t organized. They gave me the key to the office and said, “You want to be an editor? Organize this!” So I did, and they started offering me assistant work on commercials. But I wanted to cut features, so I started to make little trips to LA to meet anybody I could.

Bill Steinberg, an editor working in the Universal Syndication department who I met at USC, got me hooked up with an editor who was to be one of Roger Corman’s first Avid editors. The Avids didn’t arrive right away, but he helped me put my name in the hat to be an assistant the next time. It happened, and I was on my way! I took a sabbatical from the orchestra, went down to LA, and worked my tail off for $400 a week on three low-budget features. I was in heaven. I had enough hours to join the union as an assistant, but I needed money to pay the admission fee. So I went back to San Francisco and played one month of Nutcrackers to cover the fee, and then I took another year sabbatical. Bill offered me a month position in the syndication department to fill in for him, and show the film editors what I knew about the Avid.

Eventually Andy Chulack, the editor of Coach, was looking for an Avid assistant, and I was recommended because I knew it. Andy hired me and took me under his wing, and I absolutely loved it. I guess the upshot is, I was fearlessly naive and knew the Avid!

What do you love most about being an editor?
I love the variation of material and people that I get to work with, and I like being able to take time to refine things. I don’t have to play it live anymore!

BenQ launches color-critical monitor with USB-C connectivity

The new PD2710QC from BenQ America is a 100 percent sRGB and Rec. 709 monitor offering a range of features. The design monitor includes a USB-C docking station for MacBook and PC users, allowing designers to charge devices, transfer data, transmit audio and video, and connect to the internet, all via a single cable.

While delivering up to 61 watts of power to a laptop or mobile device, the 27-inch (2560×1440) IPS LED display’s single 5Gbps Super Speed USB-C connection powers the integrated hub and features multiple audio, video, network and USB ports, in addition to uncompressed 2K QHD video quality. Using the screen’s DisplayPort output and multi-stream transport technology (MST), users can expand their workspace across multiple monitors, and the included Display Pilot Software allows for a customized viewing experience by splitting a screen into multiple windows.

The PD2710QC is Technicolor Color-Certified, meeting the strict standards for color accuracy used throughout the media and entertainment industries. In order to ease eye strain, the display includes BenQ’s Eye-Care technology, including Zeroflicker and Low Blue Light, which eliminates flicker and filter out blue light that can cause eye fatigue and irritation, as well as an anti-glare screen.

Killer Tracks launches production music label for promos, trailers and more

Killer Tracks, an online resource offering pre-cleared music, has started a new label, called Icon, featuring music for movie trailers, television promos, advertising, sports, games and other media.

Frederik Wiedmann

The initial release includes 16 albums created and produced by award-winning composers Frederik Wiedmann and Joel Goodman, the founders of independent music producer Icon Trailer Music. The collection runs the gamut from orchestral scores to electronica.

After initially focusing on orchestral trailer music, Wiedmann and Goodman have recently been expanding beyond that niche, creatively and conceptually. “We spend a lot of time researching trends and market demands,” says Wiedmann. “We anticipate where the market is headed and are working with edgier and more contemporary styles.”

Joel Goodman

Whenever possible, Icon records with live orchestras, choirs and musicians. It also produces music with editorial in mind, creating tracks with numerous edit points, creating alternate mixes, and providing stems and musical toolkits. “We deliver lots of components that are useful to picture editors,” Goodman notes.

Wiedmann won an Emmy Award for the animated series All Hail King Julien. His credits also include the series Miles from Tomorrowland (Disney) and Green Lantern: The Animated Series (Cartoon Network), as well as the films Justice League: Flashpoint Paradox, Hostel: Part III, Mirrors II and Hellraiser: Revelations.

Goodman has more than 140 film and television credits, including the acclaimed PBS documentary series American Experience, for which he wrote the main theme. He has also scored more than 30 films for HBO, including Saving Pelican #895, for which he won an Emmy Award.

Bringing the documentary Long Live Benjamin to life

By Dayna McCallum

The New York Times Op-Docs recently debuted Long Live Benjamin, a six-part episodic documentary directed by Jimm Lasser (Wieden & Kennedy) and Biff Butler (Rock Paper Scissors), and produced by Rock Paper Scissors Entertainment.

The film focuses on acclaimed portrait artist Allen Hirsch, who, while visiting his wife’s homeland of Venezuela, unexpectedly falls in love. The object of his affection — a deathly ill, orphaned newborn Capuchin monkey named Benjamin. After nursing Benjamin back to health and sneaking him into New York City, Hirsch finds his life, and his sense of self, forever changed by his adopted simian son.

We reached out to Lasser and Butler to learn more about this compelling project, the challenges they faced, and the unique story of how Long Live Benjamin came to life.

Long Live Benjamin

Benjamin sculpture, Long Live Benjamin

How did this project get started?
Lasser: I was living in Portland at the time. While in New York I went to visit Allen, who is my first cousin. I knew Benjamin when he was alive, and came by to pay my respects. When I entered Allen’s studio space, I saw his sculpture of Benjamin and the frozen corpse that was serving as his muse. Seeing this scene, I felt incredibly compelled to document what my cousin was going through. I had never made a film or thought of doing so, but I found myself renting a camera and staying the weekend to begin filming and asking Allen to share his story.

Butler: Jimm had shown up for a commercial edit bearing a bag of Mini DV tapes. We offered to transfer his material to a hard drive, and I guess the initial copy was never deleted from my own drive. Upon initial preview of the material, I have to say it all felt quirky and odd enough to be humorous; but when I took the liberty of watching the material at length, I witnessed an artist wrestling with his grief. I found this profound switch in takeaway so compelling that I wanted to see where a project like this might lead.

Can you describe your collaboration on the film?
Lasser: It began as a director/editor relationship, but it evolved. Because of my access to the Hirsch family, I shot the footage and lead the questioning with Allen. Biff began organizing and editing the footage. But as we began to develop the tone and feel of the storytelling, it became clear that he was as much a “director” of the story as I was.

Butler: In terms of advertising, Jimm is one of the smartest and discerning creatives I’ve had the pleasure of working with. I found myself having rather differing opinions to him, but I always learned something new and felt we came to stronger creative decisions because of such conflict. When the story of Allen and his monkey began unfolding in front of me, I was just as keen to foster this creative relationship as I was to build a movie.

Did the film change your working relationship?
Butler: As a commercial editor, it’s my job to carry a creative team’s hard work to the end of their laborious process — they conceive the idea, sell it through, get it made and trust me to glue the pieces together. I am of service to this, and it’s a privilege. When the footage I’d found on my hard drive started to take shape, and Jimm’s cousin began unloading his archive of paintings, photographs and home video on to us, it became a more involved endeavor. Years passed, as we’d get busy and leave things to gather dust for months here and there, and after a while it felt like this film was something that reflected both of our creative fingerprints.

Long Live Benjamin

Jimm Lasser, Long Live Benjamin

How did your professional experiences help or influence the project?
Lasser: Collaboration is central to the process of creating advertising. Being open to others is central to making great advertising. This process was a lot like film school. We both hadn’t ever done it, but we figured it out and found a way to work together.

Butler: Jimm and I enjoyed individual professional success during the years we spent on the project, and in hindsight I think this helped to reinforce the trust that was necessary in such a partnership.

What was the biggest technical challenge you faced?
Butler: The biggest challenge was just trying to get our schedules to line up. For a number of years we lived on opposite sides of the country, although there were three years where we both happened to live in New York at the same time. We found that the luxury of sitting was when the biggest creative strides happened. Most of the time, though, I would work on an edit, send to Jimm, and wait for him to give feedback. Then I’d be busy on something else when he’d send long detailed notes (and often new interviews to supplement the notes), and I would need to wait a while until I had the time to dig back in.

Technically speaking, the biggest issue might just be my use of Final Cut Pro 7. The film is made as a scrapbook from multiple sources, and quite simply Final Cut Pro doesn’t care much for this! Because we never really “set out” to “make a movie,” I had let the project grow somewhat unwieldy before realizing it needed to be organized as such.

Long Live Benjamin

Biff Butler, Long Live Benjamin

Can you detail your editorial workflow? What challenges did the varying media sources pose?
Butler: As I noted before, we didn’t set out to make a movie. I had about 10 tapes from Jimm and cut a short video just because I figured it’s not every day you get to edit someone’s monkey funeral. Cat videos this ain’t. Once Allen saw this, he would sporadically mail us photographs, newspaper clippings, VHS home videos, iPhone clips, anything and everything. Jimm and I were really just patching on to our initial short piece, until one day we realized we should start from scratch and make a movie.

As my preferred editing software is Final Cut Pro 7 (I’m old school, I guess), we stuck with it and just had to make sure the media was managed in a way that had all sources compressed to a common setting. It wasn’t really an issue, but needed some unraveling once we went to online conform. Due to our schedules, the process occurred in spurts. We’d make strides for a couple weeks, then leave it be for a month or so at a time. There was never a time where the project wasn’t in my backpack, however, and it proved to be my companion for over five years. If there was a day off, I would keep my blades sharp by cracking open the monkey movie and chipping away.

You shot the project as a continuous feature, and it is being shown now in episodic form. How does it feel to watch it as an episodic series?
Lasser: It works both ways, which I am very proud of. The longer form piece really lets you sink into Allen’s world. By the end of it, you feel Allen’s POV more deeply. I think not interrupting Alison Ables’ music allows the narrative to have a greater emotional connective tissue. I would bet there are more tears at the end of the longer format.

The episode form sharpened the narrative and made Allen’s story more digestible. I think that form makes it more open to a greater audience. Coming from advertising, I am used to respecting people’s attention spans, and telling stories in accessible forms.

How would you compare the documentary process to your commercial work? What surprised you?
Lasser: The executions of both are “storytelling,” but advertising has another layer of “marketing problem solving” that effects creative decisions. I was surprised how much Allen became a “client” in the process, since he was opening himself up so much. I had to keep his trust and assure him I was giving his story the dignity it deserved. It would have been easy to make his story into a joke.

Artist Allen Hirsch

Butler: It was my intention to never meet Allen until the movie was done, because I cherished that distance I had from him. In comparison to making a commercial, the key word here would be “truth.” The film is not selling anything. It’s not an advertisement for Allen, or monkeys, or art or New York. We certainly allowed our style to be influenced by Allen’s way of speaking, to sink deep into his mindset and point of view. Admittedly, I am very often bored by documentary features; there tends to be a good 20 minutes that is only there so it can be called “feature length” but totally disregards the attention span of the audience. On the flip side, there is an enjoyable challenge in commercial making where you are tasked to take the audience on a journey in only 60 seconds, and sometimes 30 or 15. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed being in control of what our audience felt and how they felt it.

What do you hope people will take away from the film?
Lasser: To me this is a portrait of an artist. His relationship with Benjamin is really an ingredient to his own artistic process. Too often we focus on the end product of an artist, but I was fascinated in the headspace that leads a creative person to create.

Butler: What I found most relatable in Allen’s journey was how much life seemed to happen “to” him. He did not set out to be the eccentric man with a monkey on his shoulders; it was through a deep connection with an animal that he found comfort and purpose. I hope people sympathize with Allen in this way.


To watch Long Live Benjamin, click here.

Timecode’s new firmware paves the way for VR

Timecode Systems, which makes wireless technologies for sharing timecode and metadata, has launched a firmware upgrade that enhances the accuracy of its wireless genlock.

Promising sub-line-accurate synchronization, the system allows Timecode Systems products to stay locked in sync more accurately, setting the scene for development of a wireless sensor sync solution able to meet the requirements of VR/AR and motion capture.

“The industry benchmark for synchronization has always been ‘frame-accurate’, but as we started exploring the absolutely mission-critical sync requirements of virtual reality, augmented reality and motion capture, we realized sync had to be even tighter,” said Ashok Savdharia, chief technical officer at Timecode Systems. “With the new firmware and FPGA algorithms released in our latest update, we’ve created a system offering wireless genlock to sub-line accuracy. We now have a solid foundation on which to build a robust and immensely accurate genlock, HSYNC and VSYNC solution that will meet the demands of VR and motion capture.”

A veteran in camera and image sensor technology, Savdharia joined Timecode Systems last year. In addition to building up the company’s multi-camera range of solutions, he is leading a development team to pioneering a wireless sync system for the VR and motion capture market.

Michael Vinyard joins Xytech exec team

Xytech, which makes facility management software for the broadcast and media industries, has added industry vet Michael Vinyard in the new role of SVP Professional Services. Vinyard will be responsible for consulting, configuration and installation services for system implementations across the company.

Vinyard’s previous senior management roles include stints with Mattel, Warner Bros. and CBS. At Xytech, he will based out of the company’s Chatsworth headquarters.

“Having Michael allows us to expand our goals while maintaining the focus required to properly serve our clients,” said Greg Dolan, Xytech COO. “The addition of Michael shows our dedication to working with the best professionals in the business.”

Quick Chat: Brent Bonacorso on his Narrow World

Filmmaker Brent Bonacorso has written, directed and created visual effects for The Narrow World, which examines the sudden appearance of a giant alien creature in Los Angeles and the conflicting theories on why it’s there, what its motivations are, and why it seems to ignore all attempts at human interaction. It’s told through the eyes of three people with differing ideas of its true significance. Bonacorso shot on a Red camera with Panavision Primo lenses, along with a bit of Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera for random B-roll.

Let’s find out more…

Where did the idea for The Narrow World come from?
I was intrigued by the idea of subverting the traditional alien invasion story and using that as a way to explore how we interpret the world around us, and how our subconscious mind invisibly directs our behavior. The creature in this film becomes a blank canvas onto which the human characters project their innate desires and beliefs — its mysterious nature revealing more about the characters than the actual creature itself.

As with most ideas, it came to me in a flash, a single image that defined the concept. I was riding my bike along the beach in Venice, and suddenly in my head saw a giant Kaiju as big as a skyscraper sitting on the sand, gazing out at the sea. Not directly threatening, not exactly friendly either, with a mutual understanding with all the tiny humans around it — we don’t really understand each other at all, and probably never will. Suddenly, I knew why he was here, and what it all meant. I quickly sketched the image and the story followed.

What was the process like bringing the film to life as an independent project?
After I wrote the script, I shot principal photography with producer Thom Fennessey in two stages – first with the actor who plays Raymond Davis (Karim Saleh) and then with the actress playing Emily Field (Julia Cavanaugh).

I called in a lot of favors from my friends and connections here in LA and abroad — the highlight was getting some amazing Primo lenses and equipment from Panavision to use because they love Magdalena Górka’s (the cinematographer) work. Altogether it was about four days of principal photography, a good bit of it guerrilla style, and then shooting lots of B-roll all over the city.

Kacper Sawicki, head of Papaya Films which represents me for commercial work in Europe, got on board during post production to help bring The Narrow World to completion. Friends of mine in Paris and Luxembourg designed and textured the creature, and I did the lighting and animation in Maxon Cinema 4D and compositing in Adobe After Effects.

Our editor was the genius Jack Pyland (who cut on Adobe Premiere), based in Dallas. Sound design and color grading (via Digital Vision’s Nucoda) were completed by Polish companies Głośno and Lunapark, respectively. Our composer was Cedie Janson from Australia. So even though this was an indie project, it became an amazing global collaborative effort.

Of course, with any no-budget project like this, patience is key — lack of funds is offset by lots of time, which is free, if sometimes frustrating. Stick with it — directing is a generally a war of attrition, and it’s won by the tenacious.

As a director, how did you pull off so much of the VFX work yourself, and what lessons do you have for other directors?
I realized early on in my career as a director that the more you understand about post, and the more you can do yourself, the more you can control the scope of the project from start to finish. If you truly understand the technology and what is possible with what kind of budget and what kind of manpower, it removes a lot of barriers.

I taught myself After Effects and Cinema 4D in graphic design school, and later I figured out how to make those tools work for me in visual effects and to stretch the boundaries of the short films I was making. It has proved invaluable in my career — in the early stages I did most of the visual effects in my work myself. Later on, when I began having VFX companies do the work, my knowledge and understanding of the process enabled me to communicate very efficiently with the artists on my projects.

What other projects do you have on the horizon?
In addition to my usual commercial work, I’m very excited about my first feature project coming up this year through Awesomeness Films and DreamWorks — You Get Me, starring Bella Thorne and Halston Sage.

Behind the Title: Audiomotion managing director Brian Mitchell

NAME: Brian Mitchell

COMPANY: Oxford, UK-based Audiomotion

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
Audiomotion has been around nearly 20 years, providing motion-captured character animation to video games, film, TV and a whole host of other applications.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Managing Director

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
The job consists of many disciplines. All the usual forecasting and planning requirements, working closely with the management team to ensure we maintain the quality of service. I also get involved with the day-to-day running of the studio itself when time allows. I enjoy being part of the team especially on location shoots. We have a wide range of regular clients who are based all over the UK, Europe and beyond. I also like to get out and pay them a visit from time to time to maintain the relationship and make sure we’re aware of any new workflows and of any new opportunities for evolving our collaboration.

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
I’m not sure if it’s a surprise but as a small company we all get to wear several hats, which means there might be an odd occasion when I can sneak off to the workshop and help build some crazy props. Last time it was a full-size “mocap-friendly” helicopter.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
The thing that gives me the most pleasure is the wide variety of characters, creatives, sports celebrities and actors that we work with. Whilst on screen the workflow appears very similar, the final results are pretty amazing. I have to say that on most occasions no two shoots are the same.

We have worked with the likes of Liam Neeson, Brian Cox and Andy Sirkis. Sport stars such as Lionel Messi, Gareth Bale and Harry Kane, as well as Robbie Williams, Take That and Will.i.am to name a few, and I have to say that every one of them has been a pleasure to work with. We make it our business to ensure every client, actor and crew are supported and looked after from pre-production through the whole process to delivery and beyond if necessary.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
I would say the admin. Now don’t get me wrong, I love a good spreadsheet, I’m just not a fan of spending lots of time wading through a flood of emails or coming up with answers to this type thing!

From a shoot perspective, packing up from a horse capture location shoot. There’s a lot to do even though the party is over and you never know what you might step in!

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE TIME OF THE DAY?
I think for me it has to be first thing in the morning because I can get in early and get the jump on the day. I achieve far more that way.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
I constantly have a list of alternative ventures floating around that occasionally get discussed over a beer with friends. I’m sure I would pick one of these to develop into something. There’s no shortage of ideas and opportunity, just a lack of time.

Liam Neeson, on set.

HOW EARLY ON DID YOU KNOW THIS WOULD BE YOUR PATH?
I had no idea until the opportunity presented itself some time back. I had shared the running of the company with one Mr. Michael Morris since 2003. Now I’m flying solo.

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
A Monster Calls, which opened in the US in October, 2016, was a great production to be a part of. We had Liam Neeson in the studio for two weeks and he was great to work with. There’s a real buzz when everything is in full swing: streaming realtime characters on screen and having the director, JA Bayona, exploring the virtual world with the virtual camera.

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT?
Our in-house tracking software is very cool, my damn phone is a love-hate relationship, although I’d be lost without it, and the Bluetooth in the car makes life easy.

WHAT SOCIAL MEDIA CHANNELS DO YOU FOLLOW?
The “usual suspects” — LinkedIn, Twitter and a little bit of Facebook

DO YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC WHILE YOU WORK?
The tunes get cranked up during studio set-ups and location shoots, and my dancin’ trousers get pulled on for an after party. Other than that, I resort to an audio book in the car, which has become commonplace.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
I enjoy a spot of golf now and again, and heading off to the coast as much as possible. I play FIFA with my 11-year-old son who beats me every time! I’m quite fond of a charity run followed by a charity beer. Happy days.