Category Archives: on-set

Dog in the Night director/DP Fletcher Wolfe

By Cory Choy

Silver Sound Showdown Music + Video Festival is unique in two ways. First, it is both a music video festival and battle of the bands at the same time. Second, every year we pair up the Grand Prize-winners, director and band, and produce a music video with them. The budget is determined by the festival’s ticket sales.

I conceived of the festival, which is held each year at Brooklyn Bowl, as a way to both celebrate and promote artistic collaboration between the film and music communities — two crowds that just don’t seem to intersect often enough. One of the most exciting things for me is then working with extremely talented filmmakers and musicians who have more often than not met for the first time at our festival.

Dog in the Night (song written by winning band Side Saddle) was one of our most ambitious videos to date — using a combination of practical and post effects. It was meticulously planned and executed by director/cinematographer Fletcher Wolfe, who was not only a pleasure to work with, but was gracious enough to sit down with me for a discussion about her process and the experience of collaborating.

What was your favorite part of making Dog in the Night?
As a music video director I consider it my first responsibility to get to know the song and its meaning very intimately. This was a great opportunity to stretch that muscle, as it was the first time I was collaborating with musicians who weren’t already close friends. In fact, I hadn’t even met them before the Showdown. I found it to be a very rewarding experience.

What is Dog in the Night about?
The song Dog in the Night is, quite simply, about a time when the singer Ian (a.k.a. Angler Boy) is enamored with a good friend, but that friend doesn’t share his romantic feelings. Of course, anyone who has been in that position (all of us?) knows that it’s never that simple. You can hear him holding out hope, choosing to float between friendship and possibly dating, and torturing himself in the process.

I decided to use dusk in the city to convey that liminal space between relationship labels. I also wanted to play on the nervous and lonely tenor of the track with images of Angler Boy surrounded by darkness, isolated in the pool of light coming from the lure on his head. I had the notion of an anglerfish roaming aimlessly in an abyss, hoping that another angler would find his light and end his loneliness. The ghastly head also shows that he doesn’t feel like he has anything in common with anybody around him except the girl he’s pining after, who he envisions having the same unusual head.

What did you shoot on?
I am a DP by trade, and always shoot the music videos I direct. It’s all one visual storytelling job to me. I shot on my Alexa Mini with a set of Zeiss Standard Speed lenses. We used the 16mm lens on the Snorricam in order to see the darkness around him and to distort him to accentuate his frantic wanderings. Every lens in the set weighed in at just 1.25lbs, which is amazing.

The camera and lenses were an ideal pairing, as I love the look of both, and their light weight allowed me to get the rig down to 11lbs in order to get the Snorricam shots. We didn’t have time to build our own custom Snorricam vest, so I found one that was ready to rent at Du-All Camera. The only caveats were that it could only handle up to 11lbs, and the vest was quite large, meaning we needed to find a way to hide the shoulders of the vest under Ian’s wardrobe. So, I took a cue from Requiem for a Dream and used winter clothing to hide the bulky vest. We chose a green and brown puffy vest that held its own shape over the rig-vest, and also suited the character.

I chose a non-standard 1.5:1 aspect ratio, because I felt it suited framing for the anglerfish head. To maximize resolution and minimize data, I shot 3.2K at a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and cropped the sides. It’s easy to build custom framelines in the Alexa Mini for accurate framing on set. On the Mini, you can also dial in any frame rate between 0.75-60fps (at 3.2K). Thanks to digital cinema cameras, it’s standard these days to over-crank and have the ability to ramp to slow motion in post. We did do some of that; each time Angler Boy sees Angler Girl, his world turns into slow motion.

In contrast, I wanted his walking around alone to be more frantic, so I did something much less common and undercranked to get a jittery effect. The opening shot was shot at 6fps with a 45-degree shutter, and Ian walked in slow motion to a recording of the track slowed down to quarter-time, so his steps are on the beat. There are some Snorricam shots that were shot at 6fps with a standard 180-degree shutter. I then had Ian spin around to get long motion blur trails of lights around him. I knew exactly what frame rate I wanted for each shot, and we wound up shooting at 6fps, 12fps, 24fps, 48fps and 60fps, each for a different emotion that Angler Boy is having.

Why practical vs. CG for the head?
Even though the fish head is a metaphor for Angler Boy’s emotional state, and is not supposed to be real, I wanted it to absolutely feel real to both the actor and the audience. A practical, and slightly unwieldy, helmet/mask helped Ian find his character. His isolation needed to be tangible, and how much he is drawn to Angler Girl as a kindred spirit needed to be moving. It’s a very endearing and relatable song, and there’s something about homemade, practical effects that checks both those boxes. The lonely pool of light coming from the lure was also an important part of the visuals, and it needed to play naturally on their faces and the fish mask. I wired Lite Gear LEDs into the head, which was the easy part. Our incredibly talented fabricator, Lauren Genutis, had the tough job — fabricating the mask from scratch!

The remaining VFX hurdle then was duplicating the head. We only had the time and money to make one and fit it to both actors with foam inserts. I planned the shots so that you almost never see both actors in the same shot at the same time, which kept the number of composited shots to a minimum. It also served to maintain the emotional disconnect between his reality and hers. When you do see them in the same shot, it’s to punctuate when he almost tells her how he feels. To achieve this I did simple split screens, using the Pen Tool in Premiere to cut the mask around their actions, including when she touches his knee. To be safe, I shot takes where she doesn’t touch his knee, but none of them conveyed what she was trying to tell him. So, I did a little smooshing around of the two shots and some patching of the background to make it so the characters could connect.

Where did you do post?
We were on a very tight budget, so I edited at home, and I always use Adobe Premiere. I went to my usual colorist, Vladimir Kucherov, for the grade. He used Blackmagic Resolve, and I love working with him. He can always see how a frame could be strengthened by a little shaping with vignettes. I’ll finally figure out what nuance is missing, and when I tell him, he’s already started working on that exact thing. That kind of shaping was especially helpful on the day exteriors, since I had hoped for a strong sunset, but instead got two flat, overcast days.

The only place we didn’t see eye to eye on this project was saturation — I asked him to push saturation farther than he normally would advise. I wanted a cartoon-like heightening of Angler Boy’s world and emotions. He’s going through a period in which he’s feeling very deeply, but by the time of writing the song he is able to look back on it and see the humor in how dramatic he was being. I think we’ve all been there.

What did you use VFX for?
Besides having to composite shots of the two actors together, there were just a few other VFX shots, including dolly moves that I stabilized with the Warp Stabilizer plug-in within Premiere. We couldn’t afford a real dolly, so we put a two-foot riser on a Dana Dolly to achieve wide push-ins on Ian singing. We were rushing to catch dusk between rainstorms, and it was tough to level the track on grass.

The final shot is a cartoon night sky composited with a live shot. My very good friend, Julie Gratz of Kaleida Vision, made the sky and animated it. She worked in Adobe After Effects, which communicates seamlessly with Premiere. Julie and I share similar tastes for how unrealistic elements can coexist with a realistic world. She also helped me in prep, giving feedback on storyboards.

Do you like the post process?
I never used to like post. I’ve always loved being on set, in a new place every day, moving physical objects with my hands. But, with each video I direct and edit I get faster and improve my post working style. Now I can say that I really do enjoy spending time alone with my footage, finding all the ways it can convey my ideas. I have fun combining real people and practical effects with the powerful post tools we can access even at home these days. It’s wonderful when people connect with the story, and then ask where I got two anglerfish heads. That makes me feel like a wizard, and who doesn’t like that?! A love of movie magic is why we choose this medium to tell our tales.


Cory Choy, Silver Sound Showdown festival director and co-founder of Silver Sound Studios, produced the video.

A Conversation: Jungle Book’s Oscar-Winner Rob Legato

By Randi Altman

Rob Legato’s resume includes some titles that might be considered among the best visual effects films of all time: Titanic, Avatar, Hugo, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Apollo 13 and, most recently, The Jungle Book. He has three Oscars to his credit (Titanic, Hugo, The Jungle Book) along with one other nomination (Apollo 13). And while Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and The Aviator don’t scream effects, he worked on those as well.

While Legato might be one of the most prodigious visual effects supervisors of all time, he never intended for this to be his path. “The magic of movies, in general, was my fascination more than anything else,” he says, and that led to him studying cinematography and directing at Santa Barbara’s Brooks Institute. They provided intensive courses on the intricacies of working with cameras and film.

Rob Legato worked closely with Technicolor and MPC to realize Jon Favreau’s vision for The Jungle Book, which is nominated for a VFX Oscar this year.

It was this technical knowledge that came in handy at his first job, working as a producer at a commercials house. “I knew that bizarre, esoteric end of the business, and that became known among my colleagues.” So when a spot came in that had a visual effect in it, Legato stepped up. “No one knew how to do it, and this was before on-set visual effects supervisors worked on commercials. I grabbed the camera and I figured out a way of doing it.”

After working on commercials, Legato transitioned to longer-form work, specifically television. He started on the second season of The Twilight Zone series, where he got the opportunity to shoot some footage. He was hoping to direct an episode, but the show got cancelled before he had a chance.

Legato then took his experience to Star Trek at a time when they were switching from opticals to a digital post workflow. “There were very few people then who had any kind of visual effects and live-action experience in television. I became second-unit director and ultimately directed a few shows. It was while working on Next Generation and Deep Space Nine that I learned how to mass produce visual effects on as big a scale as television allows, and that led me to Digital Domain.”

It was at Digital Domain where Legato transitioned to films, starting with Interview With the Vampire. He served as visual effects supervisor on this one. “Director Neil Jordan asked me to do the second unit. I got along really well with DP Philippe Roussselot and was able to direct live-action scenes and personally direct and photograph anything that was not live-action related — including the Tom Cruise puppet that looked like he’s bleeding to death.” This led to Apollo 13 on which he was VFX supervisor.

On set for Hugo (L-R): Martin Scorsese, DP Bob Richardson and Rob Legato.

“I thought as a director did, and I thought as a cameraman, so I was able to answer my own questions. This made it easy to communicate with directors and cameramen, and that was my interest. I attacked everything from the perspective of, ‘If I were directing this scene, what would I do?’ It then became easy for me to work with directors who weren’t very fluent in the visual effects side. And because I shot second unit too, especially on Marty Scorsese’s movies, I could determine what the best way of getting that image was. I actually became quite a decent cameraman with all this practice emulating Bob Richardson’s extraordinary work, and I studied the masters (Marty and Bob) and learned how to emulate their work to blend into their sequences seamlessly. I was also able to maximize the smaller dollar amount I was given by designing both second unit direction and cinematography together to maximize my day.”

Ok, let’s dig in a bit deeper with Legato, a card-carrying member of the ASC, and find out how he works with directors, his workflow and his love for trying and helping to create new technology in order to help tell the story.

Over the years you started to embrace virtual production. How has that technology evolved over the years?
When I was working on Harry Potter, I had to previs a sequence for time purposes, and we used a computer. I would tell the CG animators where to put the camera and lights, but there was something missing — a lot of times you get inspired by what’s literally in front of you, which is ever-changing in realtime. We were able to click the mouse and move it where we needed, but it was still missing this other sense of life.

For example, when I did Aviator, I had to shoot the plane crash; something I’d never done before, and I was nervous. It was a Scorsese film, so it was a given that it was to be beautifully designed and photographed. I didn’t have a lot of money, and I didn’t want to blow my opportunity. On Harry Potter and Titanic we had a lot of resources, so we could fix a mistake pretty easily. Here, I had one crack at it, and it had to be a home run.

So I prevised it, but added a realtime live-action pan and tilt wheels so we could operate and react in realtime — so instead of using a mouse, I was basically using what we use on a stage. It was a great way of working. I was doing the entire scene from one vantage point. I then re-staged it, put a different lens on it and shot the same exact scene from another angle. Then I could edit it as you would a real sequence, just as if I had all the same angles I would have if I had photographed it conventionally and produced a full set of multi-angle live-action dailies.

You edit as well?
I love editing. I would operate the shot and then cut it in the Avid, instantly. All of a sudden I was able to build a sequence that had a certain photographic and editorial personality to it — it felt like there was someone quite specific shooting it.

Is that what you did for Avatar?
Yes. Cameron loves to shoot, operate and edit. He has no fear of technology. I told him what I did on Aviator and that I couldn’t afford to add the more expensive, but extremely flexible, motion capture to it. So on Avatar instead of only the camera having live pan and tilt wheels, it could also be hand-held — you could do Steadicam shots, you could do running shots, you could do hand-held things, anything you wanted, including adding a motion capture live performance by an actor. You could easily stage them, or a representation of that character, in any place or scale in the scene, because in Avatar the characters were nine feet tall. You could preview the entire movie in a very free form and analog way. Jim loved the fact he could impart his personality — the way he moves the camera, the way he frames, the way he cuts — and that the CG-created film would bear the unmistakable stamp of his distinctive live-action movies.

You used the “Avatar-way” on Jungle Book, yes?
Yes. It wasn’t until Jungle Book that I could afford the Avatar-way — a full-on stage with a lot of people to man it. I was able to take what I gave to Jim on Avatar and do it myself with the bells and whistles and some improvements that gave it a life-like sensibility of what could have been an animated film. Instead it became a live film because we used a live-action analog methodology of acquiring images and choosing which one was the right, exact moment per the cut.

The idea behind virtual cinematography is that you shoot it like you would a regular movie. All the editors, cameramen or directors who’ve never done this before are now sort of operating the way they would have if it were real. This very flavor and personality starts to rub off on the patina of the film and begins to feel like a real movie; not animated or computer generated one.

Our philosophy on Jungle Book was we would not make the computer camera do anything that a real camera could not do, so we limited the way we could move it and how fast we could move it, so it wouldn’t defy any kind of gravity. That went part and parcel with the animation and movement of the animals and the actor performing stunts that only a human can accomplish.

So you are in a sense limiting what you can do with the technology?
There was an operator behind the camera and behind the wheels, massaging and creating the various compositional choices that generally are not made in a computer. They’re not just setting keyframes, and because somebody’s behind the camera, this sense of live-action-derived movement is consistent from shot to shot to shot. It’s one person doing it, whereas normally on a CG film, there are as many as 50 people who are placing cameras on different characters within the same scene.

You have to come up with these analog methodologies that are all tied together without even really knowing it. Your choices at the end of the day end up being strictly artistic choices. We’d sort of tap into that for Jungle Book and it’s what Jim tapped into when he did Avatar. The only difference between Avatar and our film is that we set our film in an instantly recognizable place so everybody can judge whether it’s photorealistic or not.

When you start a film, do you create your own system or use something off the shelf?
With every film there is a technology advance. I typically take whatever is off-the-shelf and glue it together with something not necessarily designed to work in unison. Each year you perfect it. The only way to really keep on top of technology is by being on the forefront of it, as opposed to waiting for it to come out. Usually, we’re doing things that haven’t been done before, and invariably it causes something new and innovative.

We’re totally revamping what we did on Jungle Book to achieve the same end on my next film for Disney, but we hope to make it that much better, faster and more intuitive. We are also taking advantage of VR tools to make our job easier, more creative and faster. The faster you can create options, the more iterations you get. More iterations get you a better product sooner and help you elevate the art form by taking it to the next level.

Technology is always driven by the story. We ask ourselves what we want to achieve. What kind of shot do we want to create that creates a mood and a tone? Then once we decide what that is, we figure out what technology we need to invent, or coerce into being, to actually produce it. It’s always driven that way. For example, on Titanic, the only way I could tell that story and make these magic transitions from the Titanic to the wreck and from the wreck back to the Titanic, was by controlling the water, which was impossible. We needed to make computer-generated water that looked realistic, so we did.

THE JUNGLE BOOK (Pictured) BAGHEERA and MOWGLI. ©2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.CG water was a big problem back then.
But now that’s very commonplace. The water work in Jungle Book is extraordinary compared to the crudeness of what we did on Titanic, but we started on that path, and then over the years other people took over and developed it further.

Getting back to Marty Scorsese, and how you work with him. How does having his complete trust make you better at what you do?
Marty is not as interested in the technical side as Jim is. Jim loves all this stuff, and he likes to tinker and invent. Marty’s not like that. Marty likes to tinker with emotions and explore a performance editorially. His relationship with me is, “I’m not going to micro-manage you. I’m going to tell you what feeling I want to get.” It’s very much like how he would talk to an actor about what a particular scene is about. You then start using your own creativity to come up with the idea he wants, and you call on your own experience and interpretation to realize it. You are totally engaged, and the more engaged you are, the more creative you become in terms of what the director wants to tell his story. Tell me what you want, or even don’t want, and then I’ll fill in the blanks for you.

Marty is an incredible cinema master — it’s not just the performance, it’s not just the camera, it’s not just the edit, it’s all those things working in concert to create something new. His encouragement for somebody like me is to do the same and then only show him something that’s working. He can then put his own creative stamp on it as well once he sees the possibilities properly presented. If it’s good, he’s going to use it. If it’s not good, he’ll tell you why, but he won’t tell you how to if fix it. He’ll tell you why it doesn’t feel right for the scene or what would make it more eloquent. It’s a very soft, artistic push in his direction of the film. I love working with him for this very reason.

You too surround yourself with people you can trust. Can you talk about this for just a second?
I learned early on to surround myself with geniuses. You can’t be afraid of hiring people that are smarter than you are because they bring more to the party. I want to be the lowest common denominator, not the highest. I’ll start with my idea, but if someone else can do it better, I want it to be better. I can show them what I did and tell them to make it better, and they’ll go off and come up with something that maybe I wouldn’t have thought of, or the collusion between you and them creates a new gem.

When I was doing Titanic someone asked me how I did what I did. My answer was that I hired geniuses and told them what I wanted to accomplish creatively. I hire the best I can find, the smartest, and I listen. Sometimes I use it, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes the mistake of somebody literally misunderstanding what you meant delivers something that you never thought of. It’s like, “Wow, you completely misunderstood what I said, but I like that better, so we’re going to do that.”

Part and parcel of doing this is that you’re a little fearless. It’s like, “Well, that sounds good. There’s no proof to it, but we’re going to go for it,” as opposed to saying, “Well, no one has done it before so we better not try it. That’s what I learned from Cameron and Marty and Bob Zemeckis. They’re fearless.

Can you mention what you’re working on now, or no?
I’m working on Lion King.

Dell 6.15

The A-List: The Founder director John Lee Hancock

By Iain Blair

Director, writer and producer John Lee Hancock has carved out a successful career with his ability to tell unlikely but true stories and bring them to life on screen. In 2013, he directed Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks, about the prickly relationship between Walt Disney and author P.L. Travers and the former’s quest to adapt Travers’ Mary Poppins into a film.

John Lee Hancock on set

In 2009 he made The Blind Side, based on another true story, which he both wrote and directed. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and garnered Sandra Bullock the Best Actress Oscar.

Now Hancock has tackled another true story, albeit one with a far darker protagonist. The Founder is about the birth of McDonald’s and its rise to an international multi-billion-dollar fast food brand. The film tells the true story of how Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a struggling salesman from Illinois, met Mac and Dick McDonald, who were running a burger operation in 1950s Southern California. Kroc was impressed by the brothers’ speedy system of making the food and saw franchise potential, and the film details how Kroc maneuvered himself into a position to be able to pull the company from the brothers and create a billion-dollar empire.

The film also stars Laura Dern as Ray Kroc’s first wife Ethel, John Carroll Lynch as Mac McDonald, Nick Offerman as Dick McDonald, Linda Cardellini as Kroc’s second wife, Joan Smith, and B.J. Novak as Harry Sonneborn, the financial whiz whose franchising innovations led to Kroc being able to wrest control of McDonald’s from the founding brothers.

Based on an original screenplay by Robert Siegel (The Wrestler), the film’s behind-the-camera team includes longtime Hancock collaborators led by Oscar-nominated DP John Schwartzman (Jurassic World, Saving Mr. Banks), production designer Michael Corenblith (Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side) and editor Robert Frazen (Enough Said, Synecdoche, New York).

I talked to Hancock about making the film and his workflow.

What do you look for in a project?
I like unusual stories, and this seemed unlikely to me when I first came across it, but Rob Siegel’s a very good writer. I was very intrigued by the character of Ray Kroc and the fact that I was pulling for him for the first half of the script. Then I began to feel confused by his behavior and then actively resenting some of his actions. That’s a tricky thing to pull off in a film, but I felt it was worthwhile doing.

His motivations and character are a lot darker than the protagonists in your last films. Was that the appeal?
Absolutely. It’s interesting because it’s the story of McDonald’s first, but it starts out with Kroc and it’s told largely from his end. It’s really the flip side of Banks, in that Travers starts out as someone you’re not sure you like, and is even kind of offensive, but then as you get to know her, you realize the source of her actions and why she is who she is. It’s bittersweet at the end, but it has closure. This ends without that sort of closure and is far more ambiguous. Some people will say Kroc did what he had to do, while others will say he’s a monster.

Either way, Kroc’s another juicy role for Keaton. What did he bring to the ethically challenged Kroc?
He was the first actor I thought of for the role because Michael’s a natural born salesman himself. When he’s excited about an idea, it’s electric and infectious. He has this boyish enthusiasm, and I felt that they both shared that. He’s also a Midwesterner and values hard work, and he’s so good at going to the dark places when needed. We talked a lot about the journey the character takes, in terms of everything from dialogue and behavior to the wardrobe. Michael got it all.

The shoot must have been challenging as you didn’t have a big budget, but it required a ton of locations.
Yes, we shot mainly in Atlanta, with a day in Albuquerque, and we had to build two different McDonald’s locations — the original octagonal one in San Bernardino, California, and a Golden Arches one, and they had to not just serve as different sets but as kitchens, as we were actually cooking in them. That was a lot to deal with for production designer Michael Corenblith, but he figured it all out.

Do you like the post process?
I love it, and I’ve been blessed to work with really good editors and post crews on all my films.

Tell us about working with editor Robert Frazen.
We edited at Pivotal Post in Burbank. On every film I’m always asked, “Do you want your editor on set with you?” I always say no, because I value their opinion and objectivity, and I think sometimes you’re influenced if you’re on a location watching how the sausage is made. If it’s a really tough shot to get, there’s that sense of maybe I should keep it, even if it doesn’t work or push the story forward.

So I prefer to just talk to them a lot during the shoot, send dailies and they’ll send me cut scenes back. I don’t get too detailed in my notes either. That way, after the shoot, I can come in and watch a complete version of the film with fresh eyes, and then we start the real work. We start working on the pacing and rhythms, the order of the scenes and so on. I’d always admired Rob’s work with Nicole Holofcener, the way he digs deeper into the footage and finds little key bits of behavior, or some mistake he uses in a different way. He brought all that and more to this.

This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece but it is a period piece. How big a role did VFX play in the film?
A big role. Our VFX were done by a company called Moving Target. There’s always a lot of clean-up and removal of modern stuff. We did some of it with flashback photography, creating old photos and that feel, and there was a lot of background replacement for all the myriad restaurants, as we only had the budget to build one Golden Arches and then had to change parking, foliage, foreground and background for every different city.

We had this leaning telephone pole out front that blocked a lot of our shots, but it was going to cost $30,000 to move it and rewire it underground. Other films probably wouldn’t have blinked, but I decided to erase it in post out of the other shots and embrace it for the first location. I liked the idea that it wasn’t the best piece of property anyway, and Kroc would have to live with it the same way we were.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
It’s so crucial to a film, and I really love all the minutia of it. I know some directors who are not so involved in all that, but I love all the detail work. I feel that when you’re there for all the little tweaks, when you play it all back in the final mix, your brain isn’t looking for all the tiny details — you can just focus on the overall effect. We mixed at King Soundworks in Van Nuys and did the final mix at Ross 424 Inc.

Where did you do the DI?
At Company 3, with Stefan Sonnenfeld, who does all Schwartzi’s films. I’m pretty involved and John and I discussed the look at length before the shoot. Then, as he was off shooting another movie, we talked more as I did a pass, and then he’d look at it. We wanted it to have a very sunny look to start off, and then get a little darker as it went.

What’s next?
I have three different projects ready to go, so whichever one comes together first.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.


The A-List: La La Land’s Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle

By Iain Blair

Writer/director Damien Chazelle may only have three feature films on his short resume, but the 32-year-old is already viewed by Hollywood as an acclaimed auteur and major talent. His latest film, the retro-glamorous musical La La Land, is a follow-up to his 2014 release Whiplash. That film received five Oscar nominations — including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay for Chazelle — and three wins, including Best Supporting Actor for J.K. Simmons.

Now officially crowned as this year’s Oscar frontrunner, Lionsgate’s La La Land just scored a stunning total of 14 nominations (including Best Director), matching the record held by All About Eve and Titanic. It also recently scooped up seven Golden Globes, a record for a single movie, as well as a ton of other awards and nominations.

Damien Chazelle

Set in the present, but paying homage to the great Hollywood musicals of the ’40s and ’50s, La La Land tells the story of jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who meets aspiring actress, playwright and fan of old movies Mia (Emma Stone). They initially ignore each other, they talk, they fight — but mainly they break out of the conventions of everyday life as they break into song and dance at the drop of a hat and take us on an exuberant journey through their love affair in a movie that’s also an ode to the glamour and emotion of cinema classics. It’s also a love letter to the Los Angeles of Technicolor dreams.

To bring La La Land to life, Chazelle collaborated with a creative team that included director of photography Linus Sandgren (known for his work with David O. Russell on American Hustle and Joy), choreographer Mandy Moore, composer Justin Hurwitz, lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and editor Tom Cross who cut Whiplash for him.

I recently talked to Chazelle about making the film and his workflow.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports that the musical is dead have been greatly exaggerated. You obviously love them.
I do, and I also don’t think they’re just escapist fantasies. They usually tell you something about their era, and the idea was to match the tropes of those great old movies — the Fred and Ginger musicals — with modern life and all its demands. I’m a huge fan of all those old musicals, and I drew my inspiration from a wide mix of all the MGM musicals, the Technicolor and CinemaScope ones especially, and then all the films of Jacques Demy. He’s the French New Wave director who made The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort and A Room in Town. But I was also inspired by ‘90s films about LA that really captured the grandeur of the city, like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts or Pulp Fiction.

It’s interesting that all your films are so music-driven.
I used to be a jazz drummer — or a wannabe — so a lot of it comes from that. Probably frustrated ambition (laughs).

Is it true that you never used a hand double for Ryan Gosling when he was playing piano?
Completely true. He could play a little bit of basic piano stuff, and he’s definitely musical, but he was adamant right from the start that he would learn all the pieces and play them himself — and he did. He practiced intensely for four months before the shoot, and by the time we shot he could play. There’s no cheating. They’re his hands, even on the close-ups. That’s how committed he was.

The dancing must have been equally demanding for both Ryan and Emma?
It was. They both had a little dance experience — him more than her, I think, but fairly minimal and in different styles than this. So they had to do a lot of rehearsal and training, and Mandy Moore is a great dance instructor as well as a choreographer, so she did both at the same time — training them and building the choreography out of that and what suited each actor and each character. It was all very organic and tailored specifically for them.

The big opening dance sequence with all the cars is such a tour-de-force. Just how tough was that to pull off?
It was very tough. I had an amazing crew, and once we’d found this overpass ramp we had to figure out exactly how to shoot it for real with all these cars of different colors and eras, so there was a ton of insane logistics to deal with. That was going on while Mandy was working on all the choreography, either in the studio or in parking lots, since we couldn’t rehearse that much on location. The last thing to add was the crane. I’d storyboarded the whole sequence and shot a lot of the rehearsals on my iPhone so we could study them and see how we wanted to move the camera with the crane.

There’s been a lot of talk about it being one long uncut sequence. Is it?
No. We designed it to look like one shot but it’s actually three, stitched together invisibly, and we shot it over a weekend.

Talk about working with Linus Sandgren, who used anamorphic lenses and 35mm film to get that glamour look.
We had a great relationship, as every time I had an idea he’d one-up it, and vice-versa. So he really embraced all the challenges and set the tone with his enthusiasm. There was a lot of back and forth before and during the shoot. We wanted the camera to feel like a dancer, to become part of the choreography, to be very energetic, and we had this great Steadicam guy, Ari Robbins. He did amazing work executing these very difficult, fluid shots. I wanted the film to be very anamorphic, and today, scope films are usually shot in 2.40 to 1, but Linus thought it would be interesting to shoot it in 2.52 to 1 to give it the extra scope of those classic films. We talked to Panavision about it, and they actually custom-fit some lenses for us.

Do you like post?
I love it, especially the editing. It’s my favorite part of the whole process.

Tell us about working with editor Tom Cross. Was he on the set?
He visited a couple of times, but I think it’s better when editors are not there so they are more objective when they first see the coverage. He starts cutting while I shoot, and then we start. I like to be in the editing room every day, and the big challenge on this was finding the right tone.

While Whiplash was all about punctuated editing so it reflected the tempos and rhythms of the drumming, La La Land is the polar opposite. It’s all about lush curves, and Whiplash is a movie about hard right angles. So on this, it was all about calibrating a lot of details. We had a mass of footage — a lot ended up on the cutting room floor — and while some is heightened fantasy, some is like a realist drama. So we had to find a way for both to coexist, and that involved everything from minute tweaks to total overhauls. We actually cut the whole opening number at one point, then later put it back and dropped other scenes around it. There’s probably no number we didn’t cut at some point, so we tried all possibilities, and it took a while to get the tone and pacing right.

Where did you do the post?
At EPS-Cineworks in Burbank; then on the Fox lot. Justin, the composer, was also there working on score cues next door, and we had our sound team with us for a bit, way before the mix, doing sound design, so it was very collaborative. It was like a mini-factory. Crafty Apes did all the VFX, such as the planetarium sequence and flying through space sequence, as well as the more invisible stuff throughout the film.

Obviously, all the music and sound was crucial?
Yes, and it helped that we had a lot of the score done before we shot. Justin was with us for the edit, and we’d do temp stuff for screenings and then tweak things. I had a great sound team led by Andy Nelson, who were phenomenal. Just like with the VFX, it had to somehow be small and intimate while also being huge and epic. It couldn’t be too glossy, so all the music was recorded acoustically and the vocals are all dry with very little reverb or compression, and we mixed in Atmos at Fox.

Where did you do the DI?
On the Fox lot with colorist Natasha Leonnet from EFilm. She did Whiplash for me and she’s very experienced. The DP and her set the template for the look and color palette even before the shoot, and then Linus and I’d go in for the DI and alternate on sessions. Our final session was literally 48 hours long non-stop — no sleep, no trips outdoors — as we were so under the wire to finish. But it all turned out great, and I’m very pleased with the look and the final film. It’s the film I wanted to make.


The A-List: Elle director Paul Verhoeven

By Iain Blair

Director Paul Verhoeven has never been afraid to go where most other directors fear to tread, especially in the thorny areas of sex, violence and gender politics. Happy to shock and outrage audiences, and adept at moving effortlessly between genres — and blurring the lines between high and low culture, dreams and reality — Verhoeven has also always possessed a sly sense of humor that percolates just below the surface, even as those audiences are horrified, and mesmerized, by what they see.

After first making a name for himself with 1973’s Oscar-nominated Turkish Delight, Verhoeven became a major Hollywood and international player with such blockbusters as RoboCop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct. His resume also includes Starship Troopers and Hollow Man.

Dutch-born Verhoeven returned to European filmmaking in 2006 with Black Book — a fast-paced World War II resistance thriller — and then disappeared. But he’s now back with the acclaimed revenge thriller Elle, which stars Oscar-nominated Isabelle Huppert as a divorced, middle-aged mother and ruthless CEO of a leading video game company who, in the very opening scene, is violently raped by a masked intruder in her Paris home. When she resolutely tracks the man down, they are both drawn into a perverse and thrilling game. Huppert picked up a Golden Globe this year for her performance in the film.

I talked to Verhoeven about making the film and his workflow.

It’s been 10 long years since your last film. What happened?
I just couldn’t find anything that excited me. I tried, but several projects I liked fell apart. In general, the scripts I read weren’t on the level of Black Book, plus I wanted to try something different, so I wrote several books and kept looking.

This film seems at first to be a rape-revenge thriller, but it isn’t just that, is it?
No, certainly not. It was originally going to be set and shot in America and would have been more of a straightforward rape-revenge thriller, but I wanted to make something far more politically incorrect and controversial. Something that examines the strengths of the heroine who lives by her own rules and ultimately gets what she wants. She refuses to be a victim, and in the novel it’s based on she doesn’t go into revenge mode, which would have been a cliché and boring. It goes in another direction, which I found intriguing and liberating, and that’s why I made it. It was unknown territory for me, as it leans so much on the social relationships and the characters themselves. I’d never done that in my whole career.

Is it true you tried to get an American actress, but no one wanted to take it on?
Yes, we tried about six A-list actresses, and they all refused to do it.

So what did Isabelle Huppert bring to the role?
She’s fearless and brings absolute authenticity. We actually met at the start of the project and she was very keen to do the movie. But we thought it’d be set in America, and later my producer said to me, “Why are we fighting to do it in the US? It’s based on a French novel and Isabelle really wants to do it — let’s get her and shoot in Paris.” And he was right. I realize now that I couldn’t have made this movie in America, and that without her in the role the movie would have been a very hard sell. Although you might not sympathize completely with her, you believe her. She made the third act work and be acceptable artistically.

You shot digitally, right?
Yes, on Red Dragons, which I loved. I always had two running, very close together, with a slightly different angle so in the edit you could cut to either since it’s the same movement from the actors. I even used another DP for the “B” camera, so they worked like two “A” cameras.

Where did you do the post?
We did all the editing in Amsterdam, Holland. Job ter Burg, who cut Black Book for me, worked with me for several months, and then we did the rest of post — the sound mixing, color correction and so on — in Paris, with some stuff in Brussels. We recorded the score in London, so post was very spread out.

Do you like post?
I love it. You’re glad the shoot’s over, with all the stress over budget and schedule, and you can finally relax and make your film. You’re completely free to discuss structure and change anything you want, although we didn’t change much in terms of the scenes and order. The first cut came in at two and a half hours. We eventually cut about 25 minutes because certain scenes didn’t fit with the drama as they were too slow and interrupted the narrative flow and pace. So we did a bit of compression, but we didn’t re-order it.

This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece, but they were important, right?
Right. They were done by Mikros Image in Paris, and there were a lot of small things.  We used VFX to change backgrounds and so on, and VFX were really useful in all the scenes with the cat, because a cat is very difficult to direct (laughs). They do what they want. So some of the shots, like the cat with the bird, are composites with bluescreen. So it was all about improving what we’d shot on the day, and little touches, nothing like the big VFX sequences in RoboCop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers and Hollow Man.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
They’re both so important in film, and you’re trying to find the best atmosphere for each scene. Sometime when you shoot in the street, the traffic’s so loud you have to fix all the dialogue in post. Then finding the right music was crucial, and I had very long talks with Anne Dudley, the English composer who scored Black Book for me, about what we wanted to express, what would work and why. I’m a big fan of Stravinsky, and the unusual way he composed his symphonies, which subverted the norm. I wanted to use both modern electronic music and sounds along with symphonic music.

I prefer to listen to music, like classical, that you don’t necessarily go out and copy, but you understand what it adds to the images. So Anne and I’d listen to Janacek and Stravinsky and others, and slowly it becomes obvious what the score should be. Then she began writing her own music. So during post I would go to London a lot to work on all that with her. For me, once you have the right score, it elevates the movie into a whole new level that the visuals alone can never match.

This is France’s official Oscar entry, and we’re starting awards season. How important are awards to you?
Important, but not as important as the movie. It’s great to get recognition, but I never made a movie thinking about Oscars or awards, and I made this because it’s audacious and different from any other movie.

What’s next? Do we have to wait another 10 years?
(Laughs) No, no! Please, I feel very guilty about that. I should have made at least one, but time passed and suddenly it’s a decade later. Now I’m very aware of my age. I’ll probably be dead if I wait that long again, so I have several projects lined up, some French projects, an American film, and some Dutch ones, and I promise you I’ll say “yes” to one of them soon.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.


The A-List: Manchester by the Sea director Kenneth Lonergan

By Iain Blair

It’s been 16 years since filmmaker and playwright Kenneth Lonergan made his prize-winning debut at Sundance with You Can Count on Me, which he wrote and directed. The film won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and was an Academy Award and Golden Globe nominee for Best Screenplay.

Lonergan’s most recent film is also garnering award attention. Directed by one of the most distinctive writing talents on the American indie scene today, Manchester by the Sea, fulfills that earlier promise and extends Lonergan’s artistic vision.

Kenneth Lonergan

Both an ensemble piece and an intense character study, Manchester by the Sea tells the story of how the life of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a grieving and solitary Boston janitor, is transformed when he reluctantly returns to his hometown to take care of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) after the sudden death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). It’s also the story of the Chandlers, a working-class family living in a Massachusetts fishing village for generations, and a deeply poignant, unexpectedly funny exploration of the power of familial love, community, sacrifice and hope.

Co-produced by Matt Damon, the film from Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios — which received four SAG nominations, a crucial Oscars barometer — has a stellar behind-the-scenes list of collaborators, including DP Jody Lee Lipes (Trainwreck, Martha Marcy May Marlene), editor Jennifer Lame (Mistress America, Paper Towns), composer Lesley Barber (You Can Count on Me) and production designer Ruth De Jong (The Master, The Tree of Life).

I recently spoke with Lonergan about making the film and his workflow.

I heard Matt Damon was very involved in the genesis of this. How did this project come about?
Matt, his producer Chris Moore and John Krasinski were talking on the set of this film they were shooting about ideas for Matt’s directing debut. Matt and John brought me the basic idea and asked me to write it. So, I took some of their suggestions and went off and spent a couple of years working on it and expanding it. I don’t really start off with themes when I write. I always start with characters and stories that seem compelling, and then let the themes emerge as I go, and with this it became about people dealing with terrible loss, with the story of this man who’s carrying a weight that’s just too much to bear. It’s about loss, family and how people cope.

Is it true that Damon was going to star in it originally?
Yes, but what actually happened was that John was going to star and Matt was going to direct it, but then John’s schedule got too busy and then Matt was going to star and direct it, and then he also got too busy, so then I came onboard to also direct.

You ended up with a terrific cast. What did Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges bring to their roles?
Casey’s a truly wonderful actor who brings tremendous emotional depth even without saying much in a scene. He’s very hard working, never has a false moment and really has the ability to navigate through the complicated relationships and in the way he deals with people.

Michelle has a tremendous sense of character and is just brilliant, I think. She brings a beautiful characterization to the film and has to go through some pretty intense emotions. They’re both very generous actors, as there are a lot of people they have to interact with. They’re not show-boaters who just want to get up there and emote. And Lucas is this real find, a very talented young actor just starting out who really captured this character.

You shot this on location all over Cape Ann. How tough was it?
It was a bit grueling, as we shot from March until April and it was pretty cold a lot of the time, especially during prep and scouting in February. We had some schedule and budget pressures, but nothing out of the ordinary. I loved shooting around Cape Ann — the locals were great, and the place really seeped into the film in a way that I’m very happy about.

Do you like the post process?
I love post because of the quiet and the chance to really concentrate on making the film. I also like the lack of administrative duties and the sudden drop in the large number of people I’m responsible for on a set. It’s just you, the editor and editorial staff. Some of the technical finishing procedures can be a bit tiring after you’ve seen the film so many times, but overall post is very enjoyable for me.

I loved my editor, and doing all the sound mixing; it was so much fun putting it all together and seeing the story work, all without the stress of the shoot. You still have pressures, but not on the same scale. We did all the post in New York at Technicolor Postworks, and we worked from May through September so it was a pretty relaxed schedule. We had our basic template done by October, and then we did a bunch of little fixes from that point on so it would be ready for Sundance. Then we did a bit more work on it, but didn’t change much — we added four minutes.

Talk about working with editor Jennifer Lame. Was she on the set?
No, we sent her dailies in New York and we never actually met face-to-face until after the shoot. I had to interview her on the phone when she was in LA working on another job, and we got along right away. She’s a wonderful editor. We began cutting on Avid Media Composer at Technicolor Postworks and then did some over the summer at my rental house in Long Island, where she’d come over and set up. Then we finished up back in New York.

How challenging were all the flashbacks to cut, as they’re quite abrupt?
All the flashbacks were very interesting to put together, but they didn’t really present more of a challenge than anything else because they’re such an intrinsic part of the whole story. We didn’t want to telegraph them and warn the audience by doing them differently. We discussed them a lot. Should they be color-timed differently? Should they be shot differently? Look and sound different?

In the end, we decided they should be indistinguishable from the rest, and it’s mainly only because of the content and behavior that you know they’re flashbacks. They were fun to weave into the story, and the more seamless they were the better we liked it. Jennifer actually pointed out that it was almost like telling two stories, not just one, because that’s how Lee experiences the world. He’s always dealing with memories which pop up when they’re least wanted, and when he returns home to Manchester he’s flooded by memories — for him the past and present are almost the same.

You shot in early spring, but there’s a lot of winter scenes, so you must have needed some visual effects?
Some, but not that much. Hectic Electric in Amsterdam did them all. We had some snow enhancement, we added some smoke, clean-up and did some adjustments for light and weather, but scenes like the house fire were all real.

How important is sound and music to you?
It’s hard to overstate. For me, music has the biggest influence on the feeling of a scene after the acting — even more than the cinematography in how it can instantly change the tone and feeling. You can make it cheerful or sad or ominous or peaceful just with the right music, and it adds all these new layers to the story and goes right to your emotions. So I love working with my composer and finding the right music.

Then I asked [supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer] Jacob Ribicoff to record sounds up in Cape Ann at all our locations — the particular sound of the marina, the woods, the bars — so it was all grounded in reality. The whole idea of post sound, which we did at Technicolor Postworks with Jacob, was to support that verisimilitude. He used Avid Pro Tools. There’s no stylization, and it was also about the ocean and that feeling of never being far from water. So the sound design was all about placing you in this specific environment.

Where did you do the DI?
We did the color correction with Jack Lewars, also at Technicolor Postworks. He did the final grade on Autodesk Flame. We shot digitally but I think the film looks very filmic. They did a great job.

Did it turn out the way you first envisioned it?
Pretty much, but it always changes from the script to the screen, and once you bring in your team and all their contributions and the locations and so on, it just expands in every direction. That’s the magic of movies.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.


The A-List: Director Garth Davis on the Oscar-nominated Lion

By Iain Blair

The plot of Lion, the new awards-buzzy Weinstein film, sounds like an over-the-top, completely made-up Hollywood tearjerker — a five-year-old Indian boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar) wanders onto a train, falls asleep and wakes up thousands of miles away from his home and family. Frightened, he ends up in chaotic Kolkata. Somehow he survives living on the streets, escaping all sorts of terrors and close calls, before ending up in an orphanage.

Eventually, Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) and finds love and security as he grows up in Hobart. As an adult, not wanting to hurt his adoptive parents’ feelings, Saroo (Dev Patel) suppresses his past and his hope of ever finding his lost mother and brother, but a chance meeting with some fellow Indians re-awakens his buried yearning. Armed with only a handful of memories, his unwavering determination and Google Earth, Saroo sets out to find his lost family and finally return to his first home.

L-R: Writer Iain Blair and Garth Davis.

This true story, adapted from the memoir A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley, was directed by Emmy Award-nominated Garth Davis (Top of the Lake). The screenplay was by Luke Davies (Candy, Life). The film was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Picture category.

I talked to Davis about making the film and his workflow.

This is your first film. What were you looking for in a project?
I’d read a lot of stuff, but I only wanted to make something I was very moved by, scared by, where there was something I could explore and question. I was just so moved by this story and felt there was a lot that I could bring to it. Producers Emile Sherman and Iain Canning of See-Saw Films, who did the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech, offered it to me at Sundance in 2013. We were there for the world premiere of the TV series Top of the Lake, which I co-directed with Jane Campion for See-Saw. I just had to do it. We got the rights and I began doing research very early on — even before the book came out — and digging into the story in a deeper way, and retracing all the steps in India and Australia.

When you first read this, did you think, ‘No one’s going to believe this. It’s just too Hollywood’?
Yes. That was the big risk of doing it. So the task for me was to make a movie that was a lot more complicated, with a lot more detail, because the basic story was very simple. Luke did a great job with his script in expanding it all. But when I began, I didn’t really have the end game in mind. I was very excited by the story, curious about the characters and also curious about how the miracle came about. It was a great spiritual story as well, which really attracted me.

Photo: Mark RogersYou’ve had successful career directing commercials. How did that prepare you?
They’re great preparation in terms of your practical skills, shooting in lots of complicated situations, dealing with tons of problems — so you get very experienced on set, but also in telling stories succinctly, paring things down to what works and what doesn’t.

You assembled a stellar cast — along with co-star Google Earth — but one of the great challenges must have been finding an Indian boy to play Saroo as a five-year-old?
It was, and we screen-tested thousands of children before we found Sunny. He’s a natural and we got lucky, because children can be good actors from about the age of eight but it’s very difficult to find a five year old capable of acting. But I knew it was important to have a small boy, as it’s visually very powerful having a tiny boy lost in the big, wide world, and he had this great look behind his eyes; he turned into an actor before our very eyes. And then Nicole and Dev and everyone just got called in by the story — that was the hook.

You shot on location in Kolkata. Was that tough?
Very tough. Absolutely. I enjoy complicated locations, but shooting there’s not for the faint-hearted as you’re dealing with all the crowds, the heat, the pollution, the dust. We kept it as agile as possible, and there’s glory there if you can get it right. But you run into so many problems, like you’re allowed to shoot on this railway platform for three hours, and then you get there, the train arrives, and there are padlocks on every door, so your three hours turn into 40 minutes.

Do you like post?
Love it, as you’re crafting all the way to the end. We did it all in Melbourne at Digital Pictures and Iloura, who did all the VFX. Then we did all the sound at Sound Firm with sound designer Robert Mackenzie. Sound design was very important in this film to the story, and we established a lot of audio maps, all the sounds of nature, and we had a lot of subtle stuff going on.

Tell us about working with editor Alexandre de Franceschi, who’s a frequent collaborator with Jane Campion, and who cut John Curran’s The Painted Veil.
He never came to the set. He was in Sydney while we were shooting and then when I got back, he came up to Melbourne and we began cutting. We watched the assembly and then all the rushes together. This had a special emotional alchemy, so the challenge was to not move too quickly through a sequence or something got lost. We had to honor the emotional arc of the story, so it was a very artistic thing. On the one hand, you had to structure the story, but on the other we had to really pay attention to that arc and it was a very detailed edit. It took us about six months in the end.

This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece, but they were important, right?
Yes, and the main VFX stuff was the butterflies, and the matte painting of the guard running beside the train on the embankment. We had a big problem when we shot that, as they wouldn’t let us take the train out again, and we ended up shooting that scene in the railway yard which was really depressing. But the matte painting worked very well, And then during the edit we decided to combine two Google searches into one, but they were shot at different times in different locations, and Dev was wearing a t-shirt in one and long-sleeved shirt in the other, and Iloura changed the tee to a long-sleeved shirt, which was pretty amazing.

Dev Patel and Rooney Mara star in LIONCan you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
I love sound because it creates this immersive experience. You can have an interior scene and have sound from 100 meters away, and you may not consciously notice it, but it places it in context. So I decided very early on that the sound design would be crucial on this. So, for instance, when Saroo first wakes up alone on the platform, there’s no sound to create that sense of peril — just the cicadas, which becomes overbearing. And I love music and didn’t want to be afraid of using it.

Where did you do the DI?
At Digital Pictures with colorist Olivier Fontenay. I’ve done so many for the commercials, so I’m pretty experienced. The difference is you’re working with the cinema screen a lot more, doing the sound mix with Dolby Surround, and working with far higher image resolution, which I loved. I’m completely in the world of the movie and I don’t want to leave.

What’s next?
I’ve shot my second film, Mary Magdalene, and we’ll be doing all the post back in Melbourne again where I’m based — the same set up basically. I’m so excited about it.

Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.


The A-List: Collateral Beauty director David Frankel

By Iain Blair

Oscar-winner David Frankel is probably best known for his enormously successful films The Devil Wears Prada and Marley & Me, but the writer/director has an eclectic slate of films under his belt, including The Big Year, Hope Springs and One Chance.

Frankel owns a “Best Short” Oscar for his film Dear Diary, an Emmy for his direction of the miniseries Band of Brothers, and an Emmy nom for the Entourage pilot. In addition, he directed several episodes of Sex and the City, and the miniseries From the Earth to the Moon.

David Frankel

Frankel’s new film, Collateral Beauty, is a drama about a successful New York advertising executive who suffers a great tragedy and retreats from life. While his concerned friends try desperately to reconnect with him, he seeks answers from the universe by writing letters to Love, Time and Death. But it’s not until his notes bring unexpected personal responses that he begins to understand how these constants interlock in a life fully lived, and how even the deepest loss can reveal moments of meaning and beauty.  Frankel assembled an all-star cast, including Will Smith, Edward Norton, Keira Knightley, Michael Peña, Kate Winslet and Helen Mirren..

The drama’s behind-the-scenes creative team included director of photography Maryse Alberti (Creed), editor Andrew Marcus (American Ultra) and composer Theodore Shapiro (Trumbo).

I spoke with Frankel about making the film.

There’s been a lot of mystery about this film and the plot?
Will plays this advertising guy who loses his six-year-old daughter to cancer and he spirals into a deep hole. He’s devastated, he’s divorced, he’s not functioning at work anymore, and everyone tries to help him reconnect, but nothing really works. Then they come up with this wacky scheme, which involves hiring some actors to help him answer the questions he’s asking of the universe. I saw it as this screwball drama — a little crazy — but also very grounded and emotional. There’s a lot of moving moments and tragedy, but I think it’s quite uplifting and hopeful.

useYou got an amazing cast. Any surprises with Will Smith?
He was everything I expected and more. He’s such a risk-taker and keeps challenging himself as an actor. He took on stuff here he’s never done before, and Jacob Latimore was very impressive, really able to hold his own with the others, and there was a very unlikely pairing of actors — Helen Mirren and Michael Peña — that was unexpected and which worked out so well.

You shot this on location all over New York. How tough was it?
People complain about it a lot, but I never do. We shot it in eight weeks. It was great and wherever you go, people would help decorate the streets with Christmas lights and the street vendors would come out, and neighbors would help keep the streets quiet while we shot, so there was all this enthusiasm and great support. And you can’t really fake New York, and I love the fact that wherever you point a camera, it looks amazing.

You shot digitally, but it has a very filmic look.
Right, and I really struggle to see the difference between film and digital now, because digital’s so good. Maryse did a great job. She shot Dear Diary for me 20 years ago, and we quickly picked up where we left off. The goal was to make some very beautiful images and focus on composition and the performances.

Do you enjoy the post process?
I love post because it’s the time of discovery. When you’re shooting, it’s a time of wonder — when you’re scratching your heads for weeks on end and trying to deal with the schedule and budget and all that. Once you’re in post, you finally sit down to start telling the story you want, and when you start solving the puzzles that are in front of you in the cutting room, it’s just so satisfying. We did all the post in New York, and all the cutting at The Post Factory in Tribeca, and then we did all the sound work at the Warner Bros. mixing stage. We also recorded the music and orchestra in New York, so it was very much a New York production.

Talk about working for the first time with editor Andrew Marcus. Was he on the set?
He was on set a lot, and he actually lived just down the street from one of the locations, so he’d stop by a lot and we’d discuss stuff every day. He was so enthusiastic right from the start, and I think he’s quite brilliant. The way I work with editors is to tell them at the wrap party, ‘Pretend I got hit by a bus on the way home and you have to now finish the movie. Don’t just do an assembly and string scenes together.’ The big challenge on this was getting the tone right, as it’s such a strange mix of humor and really heavy drama, and sometimes all in the same scene.

You shot in early spring, but there’s a lot of winter, so you must have needed some VFX?
Right. We used VFX to add some Christmas decorations, lights, some snow, and we had to do clean-up. Mr. X in New York did all that.

You’ve collaborated with composer Theodore Shapiro a lot. How important is sound and music to you?
It’s huge. I’ve worked with just one composer my whole career, and Ted wrote this beautiful score that’s perfect, because it’s such an emotional movie but it also needed a very restrained score that doesn’t tell you how to feel, and I had the most fun being in the studio with him and trying stuff out. And all the sound design is so crucial to it too —capturing the sounds of New York, the subway trains.

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
We did the DI at Company 3 in Chelsea, with Tim Stipan, who’s a genius. He just did Silence with Scorsese and he has this fantastic eye for storytelling through color. I’m always involved with the DI, but even more so this time as Maryse had to go off to shoot Chappaquiddick, so I did a lot of the sessions with Tim, and it probably ended up a little warmer with me in there.

This is releasing at the same time as this new little film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Are you nervous?
No, not at all. It’s good counter-programming. The Devil Wears Prada opened against Superman and did great. I like to think people want choices.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.


VR Production: A roadmap for stereo 360, AR, VR and beyond

By Beth Marchant

It may still be the Wild West in the emerging virtual reality market, but adapting new and existing tools to recreate production workflows is nothing new for the curious and innovative filmmakers hungry for expanding ways to tell stories.

We asked directors at a large VR studio and at a nimble startup how they are navigating the formats, gear and new pipelines that come with the territory.

Patrick Meegan

Jaunt
Patrick Meegan was the first VR-centric filmmaker hired by Jaunt, a prolific producer of immersive content based in Los Angeles. Now a creative director and director of key content for the company, he will also be helping Jaunt refine and revamp its virtual reality app in the coming months. “I came straight from my MFA at USC’s interactive media program to Jaunt, so I’ve been doing VR since day one there. The nice thing about USC is it has a very robust research lab associated with the film school. I worked with a lot of prototype VR technology while completing my degree and shooting my thesis. I pretty much had a hacker mentality in graduate school but I wanted to work with an engineering and content company that was streamlining the VR process, and I found it here.”

Meegan shot with a custom camera system built with GoPro cameras on those first Jaunt shoots. “They had developed a really nice automated VR stitching and post workflow early on,” he says, “but I’d built my own 360 camera from 16 GoPros in grad school, so it wasn’t so dissimilar from what I was used to.” He’s since been shooting with the company’s purpose-built Jaunt One camera, a ground-up, modular design that includes a set of individual modules optimized with desirable features like global shutter, gunlock for frame sync and improved dynamic range.

Focusing primarily on live-action 3D spherical video but publishing across platforms, Jaunt has produced a range of VR experiences to date that include Doug Limon’s longer-form cinematic serial Invisible, (see VR Post) and short documentaries like Greenpeace’s A Journey to the Arctic and Camp4 Collective’s Home Turf: Iceland. The content is stored in the cloud, mostly to take advantage of scalable cloud-based rendering. “We’re always supporting every platform that’s out there but within the last year, to an increasing degree, we’re focusing more on the more fully immersive Oculus, HTC Vive, Gear VR and Google Daydream experiences,” says Meegan. “We’re increasingly looking at the specs and capabilities of those more robust headsets and will do more of that in 2017. But right now, we’re focused on the core market, which is 360 video.”

invisible

Invisible

When out on the VR directing jobs he bids on through Jaunt’s studios, Meegan typically shoots with a Jaunt One as his primary tool and rotates in other bespoke camera arrays as needed. “We’re still in a place where there is no one camera but many terrific options,” he says. “Jaunt One is a great baseline. But if you want to shoot at night or do aerial, you’ll need to consider any number of custom rigs that blend off-the-shelf cameras and components in different types of arrays. Volumetric and light field video are also on the horizon, as the headsets enable more interaction with the audience. So we’ll continue to work with a range of camera systems here at Jaunt to achieve those things.”

Meegan recently took the Jaunt One and a GoPro drone array to the Amazon Rain Forest to shoot a 10-minute 360-degree film for Conservation International, a non-profit organization with a trifold community, corporate partnership and research approach to saving our planet’s natural resources. An early version of the film screened this November in Marrakech during the UN’s Climate Change Conference and will be in wide release through the Jaunt app in January. “I’ve been impressed that there are real budgets out there for cause-based VR documentaries,” he says. “It’s a wonderful thing to infuse in the medium early on, as many did with HD and then 4K. Escaping into a nature-based experience is not an isolating thing — it’s very therapeutic, and most people will never have the means or inclination to go to these places in the first place.”

Pitched as a six-minute documentary, the piece showcases a number of difficult VR camera moves that ended up extending its run. “When we submitted 10-minute cuts to the clients, no one complained about length,” says Meegan. “They just wanted more. Probably half the piece is in motion. We did a lot of cable cams through the jungle, as if you are walking with the indigenous people who live there and encountering wildlife, and also a number of VR firsts, like vertical ascending and descending shots up along these massive trees.”

Tree climbing veterans from shows like Planet Earth were on hand to help set the rigs on high. “These were shots that would take three days to rig into a tree so we could deliver that magical float down through the layers of the forest with the camera. Plus, everything we had to bring into the jungle for the shoot had to fit on tiny planes and canoes. Due to weight limits, we had to cut back on some of the grip equipment we’d originally planned on bringing, like custom cases and riggings to carry and protect the gear from wildlife and the elements. We had to measure everything out to the gram.” Jaunt also customized the cable cam motors to slow down the action of the rigs. “In VR you want to move a lot slower than with a traditional camera so you get a comfortable feel of movement,” says Meegan. “Because people are looking around within the environment, you want to give them time to soak it all in.”

An example of the Jaunt camera at work – Let’s Go Mets!

The isolated nature of the shoot posed an additional challenge: how to keep the cameras rolling, with charging stations, for eight hours at a time. “We did a lot on the front end to determine the best batteries and data storage systems to make that happen,” he says. “And there were many lessons learned that we will start to apply to upcoming work. The post production was more about rig removal and compositing and less about stitching, so for these kinds of documentary shoots, that helps us put more of our resources into the production.”

The future of narrative VR, on the other hand, may have an even steeper learning curve. “What ‘Invisible’ starts to delve into,” explains Meegan, “is how do we tell a more elaborate, longer-form story in VR? Flash back to a year or so ago, when all we thought people could handle in the headset at one time was five or six minutes. At least as headsets get more comfortable — and eventually become untethered — people will become more engaged.” That wire, he believes, is one of VR’s biggest current drawbacks. “Once it goes away, and viewers are no longer reminded they are actually wearing technology, we can finally start to envision longer-form stories.”

As VR production technology matures, Meegan also sees an opening for less tech-savvy filmmakers to join the party. “This field still requires healthy hybrids of creative and technical people, but I think we are starting to see a shift in priorities more toward defining the grammar of storytelling in VR, not just the workflows. These questions are every bit as challenging as the technology, but we need all kinds of filmmakers to engage with them. Coming from a game-design program where you do a lot of iterations, like in visual effects and animation, I think now we can begin to similarly iterate with content.”

The clues to the future may already be in plain sight. “In VR, you can’t cut around performances the way you do when shooting traditional cinema,” says Meegan. “But there’s a lot we can learn from ambient performances in theater, like what the folks at Punchdrunk are doing in Sleep No More immersive live theater experience in New York.” The same goes for the students he worked with recently at USC’s new VR lab, which officially opened this semester.

“I’m really impressed by how young people are able to think around stories in new ways, especially when they come to it without any preconceived notions about the traditional structure of filmmaker-driven perspectives. If we can engage the existing community of cinematic and video game storytellers and get them talking to these new voices, we’ll get the best of both worlds. Our Amazon project reflected that; it was a true blend of veteran nature filmmakers and young kid VR hackers all coming together to tell this beautiful story. That’s when you start to get a really nice dialog of what’s possible in the space.”

Wairua
A former pro skateboarder, director of photography and post pro Jim Geduldick thrives on high-stakes obstacles on the course and on set. He combined both passions as the marketing manager of GoPro’s professional division until this summer, when he returned to his filmmaking roots and co-founded the creative production and technology company Wairua. “In the Maori tradition, the term wairua means a spirit not bound to one body or vessel,” he explains. “It fits the company perfectly because we want to pivot and shape shift. While we’re doing traditional 2D, mixed reality and full-on immersive production, we didn’t want to be called just another VR studio or just a technology studio. If we want to work on robotics and AI for a project, we’ll do that. If we’re doing VR or camera tech, it gives us leeway to do that without being pegged as a service, post or editorial house. We didn’t want to get pigeonholed into a single vertical.”

With his twinned background in camera development and post, Geduldick takes a big-picture approach to every job. “My partner and I both come from working for camera manufacturers, so we know the process that it takes to create the right builds,” he says. “A lot of times we have to build custom solutions for different jobs, whether that be high-speed Phantom set-ups or spherical multicam capture. It leaves us open to experiment with a blend of all the new technology out there, from VR to AR to mixed reality to AI to robotics. But we’re not just one piece of the puzzle; knowing capture through the post pipeline to delivery, we can scale to fit whatever the project needs. And it’s inevitable — the way people are telling stories and will want to tell them will drastically change in the next 10 years.”

Jim Geduldick with a spherical GoPro rig.

Early clients like Ford Motors are already fans of Wairua’s process. One of the new company’s first projects was to bring rally cross racer Ken Block of the Hoonigan Racing Division and his viral Gymkhana video series to VR. The series features Block driving against the clock the Ford Focus RS RX rallycross car he helped design and drove in the 2016 FIA World Rallycross Championship on a racing obstacle course, explaining how he performs extreme stunts like the “insane” and the “train drift” along the way. Part one of Gymkhana Nine VR is now available via the Ford VR app for iOS and Android.

“Those brands that are focused on a younger market are a little more willing to take risks with new content like VR,” Geduldick says. ‘We’re doing our own projects to test our theories and own internal pipelines, and some of those we will pitch to our partners in the future. But the clients who are already reaching out to us are doing so through word of mouth, partly because of our technical reputations but mostly because they’ve seen some of our successful VR work.” Guiding clients during the transition to VR begins with the concept, he says. “Often they are not sure what they want and often you have to consult with them and say, ‘This is what’s available. Are they going for a social reach? Or do you want to push the technology as far as it will go?’ Budgets, of course, determine most of that. If it’s not for a headset experience, it’s usually going to a platform or a custom app.”

Wairua’s kit, as you might expect, is a mix of custom tools and off-the-shelf camera gear and software. “We’re using GoPro cameras and the GoPro Odyssey, which is a Google Jump-ready rig, as well as the Nokia Ozo and other cameras and making different rigs,” he says. “If you’re shooting an interview, maybe you can get away with shooting it single camera on a panohead with one Red Epic with a fisheye lens or a Sony A7s ii. I choose camera systems based on what is the best for the project I’m working on at that moment.”

His advice for seasoned producers and directors — and even film students — transitioning to VR is try before you buy. “Go ahead and purchase the prosumer-level cameras, but don’t worry about buying the bigger spherical capture stuff. Go rent them or borrow them, and test, test, test. So many of the rental houses have great education nights to get you started.”

The shot of NYC was captured by a spherical array shoot on the top of the Empire State Building.

Once you know where your VR business is headed, he suggests, it’s time to invest. “Because of the level that we’re at, we’ve purchased a number of different camera systems, such as Red Epic, Phantom, tons of GoPros and even a Ricoh Theta S camera, which is the perfect small spherical camera for scouting locations. That one is with me in my backpack every time I’m out.”

Geduldick is also using The Foundry’s Cara VR plug-in with Nuke, Kolor’s Autopan Video Pro and Chris Bobotis’s Mettle plug-in for Adobe After Effects. “If you’re serious about VR post and doing your own stitching, and you already use After Effects, Mettle is a terrific thing to have,” he says. A few custom tetrahedral and ambisonic microphones made by the company’s sound design partners and used in elaborate audio arrays, as well as the more affordable Sennheiser Ambeo VR mic, are among Wairua’s go-to audio recording gear. “The latter is one of the more cost-effective tools for spatial audio capture,” says Geduldick.

The idea of always mastering to the best high-resolution archival format available to you still holds true for VR production, he adds. “Do you shoot in 4K just to future-proof it, even if it’s more expensive? That’s still the case for 360 VR and immersive today. Your baseline should always be 4K and you should avoid shooting any resolution less than that. The headsets may not be at 4K resolution per eye yet, but it’s coming soon enough.”

Geduldick does not believe any one segment of expanded reality with take the ultimate prize. “I think it’s silly to create a horse race between augmented reality and virtual reality,” he says. “It’s all going to eventually meld together into immersive storytelling and immersive technology. The headsets are a stopgap. 360 video is a stopgap. They are gateways into what will be and can come in the next five to 10 years, even two years. Yes, some companies will disappear and others will be leaders. Facebook and Google have a lot of money behind it, and the game engine companies also have an advantage. But there is no king yet. There is no one camera or or no single software that will solve all of our problems, and in my opinion, it’s way too soon to be labeling this a movement at all.”

Jim with a GoPro Omni on the Mantis Rover for Gymkhana.

That doesn’t mean that Wairua isn’t already looking well beyond the traditional entertainment marketing and social media space at the VR apps of tomorrow. “We are very excited about industrial, education and health applications,” Geduldick says. “Those are going to be huge, but the money is in advertising and entertainment right now, and the marketing dollars are paying for these new VR experiences. We’re using that income to go right back into R&D and to build these other projects that have the potential to really help people — like cancer patients, veterans and burn victims — and not just dazzle them.”

Geduldick’s advice for early adopters? Embrace failure, absorb everything and get on with it. “The takeaway for every single production you do, whether it be for VR or SD, you should be learning something new and taking that lesson with you to your next project,” he says. “With VR, there’s so much to learn — how the technology can benefit you, how it can hurt you, how it can slow you down as a storyteller and a filmmaker? Don’t listen to everybody; just go out and find out for yourself what works. What works for me won’t necessarily work for someone like Ridley Scott. Just get out there and experiment, learn and collaborate.”

Main Image: A Ford project via Wairua.


Beth Marchant has been covering the production and post industry for 21 years. She was the founding editor-in-chief of Studio/monthly magazine and the co-editor of StudioDaily.com. She continues to write about the industry.

catherine orchard

Derby picks director Catherine Orchard for roster

New York-based production company Derby has added Catherine Orchard to its directorial roster. Formerly a graphic designer and art director, Orchard’s work in the creative departments of various brands and magazines has helped her to develop an eye for strong imagery in combination with humor and lyrical storytelling.

She has worked with a variety of brands and magazines, including Bobbi Brown, Alice + Olivia, Jane, Travel + Leisure and Vibe. Most recently, she has been directing for Loft and Teen Vogue.

We checked in with Brooklyn-based Orchard to find out how she works and what her process is like: “Whenever I start a project, I look at what the existing elements are and break them down to what’s key and what needs to be said or shown. Then I let my imagination wander and take inventory on the many ways to put those particulars into a story. I like having a starting point of knowing the character (so cliché, but how else?!) and then the tone and look follows.”

That goes for any project, she says, whether it be commercial, narrative or experimental. “I’m interested in trying out some of the technical things, like practical lighting tricks, VFX and camera movements if it makes sense for the story’s look and tone. I also do research to sort out what the story might actually look and feel like. Then I revise. That’s usually the way I start each and every one of my projects.”

When asked about a recent job, Orchard talked about working with the kids from Netflix’s Stranger Things for Teen Vogue. “We had less than one hour to film, so I thought playing a game of charades would be fun — they made up their own dreams and nightmares. I should mention that serving candy to kids at 9am is a very cheap trick, but it worked!”

While Orchard hasn’t yet helmed a job for Derby, future projects can be expected to come from her in early 2017.  Orchard joins Derby’s directorial roster, which includes Lucas Borrás, Nickolas Duarte, The Bozzwicks and John Poliquin. Since the company launched in the fall of 2015, Derby has produced campaigns with its agency and brand partners for Listerine, Lucky Charms, Johnson & Johnson, Sauza, Erno Laszlo and others.