By Randi Altman
Change is good. That’s what people say, right? Well Dennis Ho, president of Hollywood-based post house Digital Jungle recently proved that point by helming his first film, the indie offering A Better Place.
Ho also conceived the story, which follows a shy young man with a mysterious and scary power that has led him to live as a virtual shut-in for most of his life.
Of course he brought the film to Digital Jungle, which provided the DI, 100 visual effects shots, audio post, editing and other services.
What better time than now to reach out to Ho and ask him about his directorial debut.
What was it like to step out from behind the post gear and helm a film?
It’s really not so much about stepping out of post, but more about entering back into production. Before opening my first post house in Hollywood, I owned and ran a very busy trailer and promo production company (Encore Communications) — catering to almost every major studio for features and television. Back then I was responsible for myriad creative campaigns and spots for such clients as Disney, Universal, Fox and Warner Bros. My job as creative director was to design campaigns, then direct and deliver projects that mirrored my client-approved storyboards.
How long have you been thinking about directing a film?
I think a lot of people dream of directing a film, however my goal was to helm a project and tell a story that was free and clear of studio intervention. After decades of writing, editing and directing projects for major distributors/networks and working on countless movie spots and trailers, I was privy to seeing first hand which films worked and why, and which were destined to fail. Yes, I had to put lipstick on a lot of pigs. Directing a film was on my bucket list for a while.
Admittedly, after not being on set for nearly 15 years, it took a few days for me to get back on the horse, especially on my first full-length feature.
Do you think your post background helped with the directing? Were you editing it in your head on set?
I believe I had significant advantages over typical first-time feature directors because of my post finishing knowledge and editing background. My years of experience as a seasoned creative editor eliminated any ambiguities in framing critical shots, blocking and evaluating actor performances. I knew immediately at the end of each production day if I had enough coverage to make a scene work… so, yes, I was constantly editing in my head while directing. I also kept a running balance of which visual effects shots were best done practically or to be created later in post. Those numbers and figures were on my mind constantly while on set.
You also posted the project at Digital Jungle. What services did the studio provide, and what gear was used?
A Better Place, a Digital Jungle Pictures production, was very fortunate to have its sister company, Digital Jungle Post for editorial, DI and audio finishing. This was a bit of a passion project, so we worked around other clients and other time critical projects while we chipped away on the film. We finished principle photography back in December 2013 and completed our post finishing in October 2014.
I was also the editor on the film, and used Apple FCP 7 as my workstation. However, I’m pretty agnostic when it comes to edit systems generally.
While the feature is predominately a drama, there are number of fantasy scenes in the film. The visual effects for “A Better Place” were designed and created on multiple systems. Nuke was used for its mesh warping effects, along with its matchbox plug-in to create various organic plasma elements. The roto capabilites of Imagineer’s Mocha was used to create clean plates and facial tracking effects. Smoke was employed to create 3D displacement imagery.
In all, we created over 100 photorealistic effects for the feature. The Quantel Pablo was our main DI box for conform and color grade and we the Neo Nano control panel.
In terms of audio, Digital Jungle Post is the first post house to use Avid’s new S6 control surface console, along with JBL LSR6328P active studio monitors and Pro Tool 11’ software on a full-length feature film. We were able to streamline all of the film’s audio workflow — from pre-dub to mix — in a single audio suite environment. This process includes dialogue clean-up, background and effects creation, ADR and final mix. Moreover, the final mix translated very accurately when played back in a large dub stage theater, both at Fox and Universal.
How good did it feel to control all aspects of the project?
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to control all aspects of the project. During pre-production and production, I was faced with all the time and budget constraints every indie filmmaker experiences. (I think this project made us a better vendor to all indie filmmakers because we got to walk in their shoes.)
But the one control I was adamant about was our camera choice. I wanted a camera with a wide dynamic range, so the Arri Alexa was my first choice, hands down. While the raw images were already beautiful with the LUT we created — the latitude we had during color grading was phenomenal.
Once the project was in post, we were able to pace the outflow of expenses in a very manageable way.
I think the feel-good quality comes from the freedom of creative expression made possible without studio or third-party constraints, and tempered only by the resources of an indie budget.
What was the most challenging part?
It was physical. I’m used to sitting comfortably in a dark post environment, so getting up at 3am for a 5am call time, standing on my feet while shooting for 12 hours or more and doing it all again the next day was brutal. Plus all of our locations were freezing and almost our entire crew was sick with a cold or some type of ailment for a good part of our shooting schedule. Plus shooting everything on my storyboard while trying to make my day.
What are you most proud of in terms of the film?
I’m not sure if pride describes my feeling, maybe relief. Relief that I actually finished a narrative film and pray that it doesn’t suck too badly. However I can say that I’m very satisfied that I was able to tell a dramatic story about unintended consequences, redemption and karma in a manner that has yet to be told.
Is there another directing project on the horizon for you? Not at the immediate moment, but I’ve just started writing a new story for a second feature. Also I’m knee-deep tidying up clearances, E&O insurance, distribution and marketing duties for A Better Place. I’m also currently involved in three new additional films as executive producer — Junkyard Dog, Broken Memories Day of Days. The first is currently in editorial here at DJ and the other two are slated to begin shooting in a few months.