Tag Archives: Oscar Awards

Dee Rees talks about directing Netflix’s Mudbound

By Iain Blair

Change is good, and while there are only a handful of young, successful, black female directors shooting features these days, the tide is starting to turn. Case in point: Dee Rees, who is helping lead the charge with her powerful new feature Mudbound, which was nominated for two Golden Globes.

Set in the rural American South during World War II, it’s an epic story of two families pitted against one another by a ruthless social hierarchy, yet bound together by the shared farmland of the Mississippi Delta.

Writer Iain Blair and director Dee Rees.

On one side is the McAllan family, newly transplanted from the quiet civility of Memphis and unprepared for the harsh demands of farming. Despite the grandiose dreams of Henry (Jason Clarke), his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) struggles to keep the faith in her husband’s losing venture.

On the other side are Hap and Florence Jackson (Rob Morgan, Mary J. Blige), sharecroppers who have worked the land for generations and who also struggle bravely to build a small dream of their own despite the rigidly enforced social barriers they face.

The war upends both families’ plans as their returning loved ones, Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), forge a fast but uneasy friendship that challenges the brutal realities of the Jim Crow South in which they live.

The film was co-written by Rees, who made her feature film debut with Pariah, which won a ton of awards. She went on to direct the Emmy-Award-winning HBO film Bessie.

I talked recently with Rees about making the film and the push for more diversity in the industry.

What was your vision for this film?
A good old-fashioned sprawling Hollywood epic that they don’t make anymore, with tons of characters and drama and emotion.

This is a period piece, but there are a lot of the issues you deal with — racism, class, women’s issues, civil rights issues. These are all particularly timely now.
Yes, and I think it’s become more timely because our consciousness has changed. I think it would have been timely five or 10 years ago, but audiences might not have recognized it as such, and attitudes have changed and are still changing about all these issues — and others. Look at all the sex scandal stuff coming to light in Hollywood and other places.

Is it true you absolutely wanted to shoot this in the South, but then found it wasn’t so easy in terms of finding the right locations?
Yes, I’m from the South — Nashville, Tennessee — and I hate seeing Southerners and the South not depicted correctly and accurately, and the locations were vital as they function like another character in the story. So we scouted all over the South — Mississippi, where it’s actually set, and Georgia and Louisiana — and we ended up shooting on a working sugar plantation near New Orleans. The landscape and farmland was perfect. It really gave you the sense of unrelenting nature, and the way the furrows went in the field was a big artistic choice… deciding how the lines were going to go.

It’s interesting that Louisiana has preserved a lot of their slave history. You can see the original sharecroppers’ cabins, and I think it’s right to preserve stuff like that so you can see it actually happened. In Mississippi, a lot of that’s gone. So we used real sharecroppers’ cabins, and convinced the owners to let us move these historical buildings deeper into the fields, as we wanted to have these 360-degree shots where you feel that the characters are all dwarfed by the landscape. All that has an accumulative effect in creating this world. We didn’t use any soundstages at all because I wanted it to look and feel authentic. You just can’t fake all the mud and dust and that landscape.

I imagine the shoot wasn’t easy?
It was pretty intense. We were supposed to have 28 days there, but we got rained out two days and had to make that up. Then we shot for two days in Budapest for the wartime scenes, including a big tank battle. We did that in the morning and then the liberation scenes the next day, and then later, during the edit, we shot the B52 plane scenes at a war museum on Long Island, and that was a big dance between special effects and VFX. So we ended up with 29 days for a big story that you’d normally need 60 days to do justice considering the sheer scope and scale involved.

You had a women DP (Rachel Morrison), who shot Fruitvale Station, and a woman editor (Mako Kamitsuna), who cut Pariah for you and who’s now cutting Johnny Depp’s LAbyrinth as well as a woman composer (Tamar-Kali). Was that deliberate?
Absolutely, but I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just tokenism. Too often hiring women can get conflated with tokenism, and they are women who are incredibly at what they do.

Do you like the post process?
I love it, and it reminds me of writing, which is solitary, contemplative and internal. Production is a frenzied rush, external and exhausting, and then you get to post which is where you recoup in a way, and was just me and Mako making the film. We did most of the editing in an artist’s loft in upstate New York, which was really cheap to rent. I like being away from all the noise and bustle of New York and just isolating for a bit and really focusing. Then Tama, our composer, came in, and then our sound team, and we had the space and time to really build it all up and elevate the raw material.

What were the main editing challenges?
The biggest one was figuring out when to move from one family story to the other. I was worried about staying with the McAllan’s too long, and then suddenly the Jacksons come out of nowhere, maybe too soon, and then having to explain some of the back story out of sequence. So do you break the chronology or trust that when you hand off to the Jacksons it’ll work for the audience? We kept starting with the burial, and then going into all the tensions between the families, with all the questions, like why do they hate each other so much?

In one version we went off with the Jacksons, but it didn’t quite work, and ultimately we started with Henry. He took us to the farm, which takes us to the war, and the war takes us to Ronsel and Jamie, and then it all flowed. But we had to make sure each family had its own trajectory, and one exercise we did was to edit just one family story as if it was its own film. Then we did the other family to see where it worked, where it didn’t, and where the natural intersections fell in their stories. That was so helpful.

Can you talk about the importance of sound and music in Mudbound?
It’s so important to me, and I always want the score to work seamlessly with the sound design so it feels like it comes out of the sound design. Like with the editing, I feel the music shouldn’t be used as an emotional crutch, so once we had picture locked Tamar came in and then reacted to it with her score, and I didn’t have to say much to her.

She was inspired and wrote this beautiful orchestral score, which was perfect because I didn’t want to have the obvious 1940s thing with banjo, blues and harmonica. I wanted strings, and my sound team did a fantastic job. We did a Atmos mix at Harbor in New York, thanks to a Dolby grant, and it was so cool and exciting to do that.

This is obviously a performance-driven piece, but there must have been a fair amount of visual effects?
Mr. X Gotham did them all, and we had quite a lot for the plane scenes, including the B52 formation and the tank battle scenes. They also added some explosions, and there was cleanup work, but all the farm stuff — the mud and water — was all real and in-camera. We used a lot of special effects — squibs and gore packs — for the war scenes.

What about the DI?
We did it at Harbor Post in New York, and the colorist was Joe Gawler (who worked on Blackmagic Resolve). He did a really great job.

Did it all turn out the way you pictured?
It did and I’m really happy with it.

Mudbound is making a lot of Oscar and other awards noise right now — deservedly so. What does that mean to you?
It’s very exciting for all the crafts people involved. I feel we made a great film, but without a huge budget, so the more attention the better.

There’s been a lot of talk about the lack of opportunity for women and minorities in Hollywood. Are things improving?
Very slowly, but a lot of the problem is the pipeline. We need more creatives able to get in the door. The Academy is just a receptacle at the end of the pipeline. We can change its make up, but the bigger thing is changing what’s getting made.


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.

Joe Wright on directing Darkest Hour

By Iain Blair

Maybe it’s something in the water, but Dunkirk and Winston Churchill seem to be popping up everywhere these days. While the British statesman and prime minister merely hovered unseen in the background of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk epic, he’s front-and-center in Joe Wright’s aptly titled Darkest Hour.

Starring Academy Award-nominee and BAFTA Award-winner Gary Oldman as Churchill, it tells the story of his first weeks in office during the fraught early days of World War II. A witty and brilliant statesman, Churchill is a stalwart member of Parliament, but at age 65 is an unlikely candidate for prime minister. However, the situation in Europe is desperate, with allied nations continuing to fall against Nazi troops and with the entire British army stranded in France at Dunkirk.

Writer Iain Blair and director Joe Wright.

He’s appointed PM as the threat of invasion of the UK by Hitler’s forces looms, only to find his own party is plotting against him and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) skeptical that the new prime minister can rise to the challenge. He is confronted with the ultimate choice: negotiate a peace treaty with Nazi Germany and save the British people at a terrible cost, or fight on against incredible odds.

With the support of his wife of 31 years, Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas), Churchill looks to the British people to inspire him to stand firm and fight for his nation’s ideals, liberty and freedom. Putting his power with words to the ultimate test, and with the help of his tireless secretary (Lily James), Winston must write and deliver speeches that will rally a nation as he attempts to change the course of world history forever.

Working from a script by Anthony McCarten, Wright also assembled a stellar below-the-line team that included DP Bruno Delbonnel, editor Valerio Bonelli and composer Dario Marianelli.

Wright first grabbed Hollywood’s attention with his debut film, 2005’s Pride & Prejudice, which won a raft of awards and four Oscar nominations. He followed that up with the Oscar-winning war drama Atonement, and in 2012 reunited with his Atonement star Kiera Knightley to remake Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s classic tale of love and betrayal.

Now, the master of period pieces, whose credits include The Soloist, Pan and Hanna, is getting a lot of awards and Oscar buzz for Focus Features’ Darkest Hour, and Oldman looks like a lock for an Oscar nomination.

I met up with Wright to discuss making the film.

This is definitely not your usual biopic. It’s a real political thriller, but also a character study.
Yeah, and that’s what I wanted to make. I didn’t realize there were so many Churchill projects going on in both movies and TV, and I wasn’t interested in trying to cover his whole life. This is a very concentrated slice about a pivotal moment in his life — and in history.When I first read the script, it was such a page-turner, full of all this drama and emotion, highs and lows.

First off, he was this complete English eccentric who’d hold meetings while taking a bath, or in his bed, and he’d drink whisky and scotch at lunch and discuss matters of state in his nightshirt… that’s an appealing character. I think he was also a bit of a genius. I say “bit of,” because he also got a lot wrong in his life and career, such as Gallipoli. But when it really counted the most — the resistance to Hitler, tyranny, bigotry and Nazism — he got it exactly right.

Casting the right actor as Churchill was obviously crucial, but what made you choose Gary Oldman — who looks nothing like him?
I’ve always been a huge fan of his — he’s the man — but for this role I wanted an actor with the right level of intensity.  I saw Churchill as almost bi-polar, with all this energy both in thought and action that led him to brilliance, but that also sometimes led him to disastrous and reckless acts. Gary has that kind of energy, which is impossible to fake. You can do all the rest — prosthetics and make-up and body suits, but the essence is what’s most important.

What were the main challenges of the shoot?
It wasn’t a big shoot though it’s got a big scale and deals with epic themes. It wasn’t a micro-budget, but it was tight, so a main challenge was how to deliver a movie that feels truly epic with very limited resources. It’s a very dialogue-heavy film, and with a lot of scenes — including a 10-minute one with people sitting around a table talking — so we had to find a way to make all that very dramatic and as suspenseful as possible.

Fair to say your visual approach on this marries a lot of cutting-edge camera moves to a very classical style?
I think that’s right. I kind of like classicism, and I strive to achieve what might be called “modern classicism,” and I also use a lot of sweeping and unusual camera moves at the same time. Because so much is set in the underground bunkers, whenever we left I wanted to give it a lot more scope and scale, so we designed a lot of shots with that in mind. As I read the script, I envisaged it, and then I spent many, many hours lying on the sofa, listening to music and thinking about what I might do. That’s when I dreamed up those sequences. And we started with all the VFX and post from day one. It all happened together.

Do you like the post process?
Love it, and it’s probably my favorite part, though I like the whole filmmaking process. There are times when post can be very frustrating, but that’s also true of shooting.

Where did you do the post?
All in London. I cut it at my house, and it was set up in such a way that I could do most of the post there, which was great.  Craig Berkey, the supervising sound editor — did my first film and every one since — does most of his cutting and work at home in Canada, and then he came over, and we did all the mixing at Halo Post in London.

Then we did the DI at Technicolor in London, with colorist Peter Doyle, who has a very subtle hand and eye, and he does a lot of my stuff. I really enjoy that process so much as well. Back in the ‘90s in London, everyone was doing music videos, and we all used to spend long nights in telecine smearing stuff all over the film and trying to experiment with all sorts of looks. So it’s always been very important to me, and exciting, and I’m pretty involved.

The film was edited by Valerio Bonelli, who worked with you on Black Mirror, and whose credits include Philomena and Florence Foster Jenkins for Stephen Frears. How did that relationship work?
Black Mirror was a good opportunity to try someone new. I loved working with him, and that rolled straight into this. He was on location with us up in Yorkshire at the house we used, and we set a cutting room up there. After shooting every day, I’d come back, we’d watch dailies and discuss the edit. The edit took about six months, and for the first time —  I’d committed to directing a play — I took a six-week hiatus and found it to be very helpful with the edit. I didn’t watch it once during that time, so it was abundantly clear where I was being indulgent when I came back to it with fresh eyes. I plan to take a break like that during editing from now on, it was so helpful.

What about visual effects shots in the film. How many are there?
We had about 60, and Framestore did them all. I really like working with VFX as they’re such a useful tool, a means to an end. But when they become the end, then you have a big problem.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker?
For me it’s half of the experience. I sent the composer the script prior to shooting and we talked about my ideas. I wanted something quite minimalist, which was unusual for him as he’s more in the lush, romantic tradition. I also sent him a photo of Gary as Churchill walking, to show him the energy. He wrote a piece based on that photo, and did a fantastic score.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped it would?
You always have a picture of it in your head and it’s always different from the way you originally pictured it, but I’m very happy with 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.

A conversation with editor Hughes Winborne, ACE

This Oscar-winning editor talks about his path, his process, Fences and Guardians of the Galaxy.

By Chris Visser

In the world of feature film editing, Hughes Winborne, ACE, has done it all. From cutting indie features (1996’s Sling Blade) to CG-heavy action blockbusters (2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy) to winning an Oscar (2005’s Crash), Winborne has run the proverbial gamut of impactful storytelling through editing.

His most recent film, the multiple-Oscar-nominated Fences, was an adaptation of the seminal August Wilson play. Denzel Washington, who starred alongside Viola Davis (who won an Oscar for her role), directed the film.

Winborne and I chatted recently about his work on Fences, his career and his brief foray into house painting before he caught the filmmaking bug. He edits on Avid Media Composer. Let’s find out more.

What led you to the path you are on now?
I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, and I went to college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I graduated with a degree in history without a clue as to what I was going to do. I come from a family of attorneys, so because of an extreme lack of imagination, I thought I should do that. I became a paralegal and worked at North Carolina Legal Services for a bit. It didn’t take me long to realize that that wasn’t what I was meant to do, and I became a house painter.

A house painter?
I had my own house painting business for about three years with a couple of friends. The preamble to that is, I had always been a big movie fan. I went to the movies all the time in high school, but after college I started seeing between five and 10 a week. I didn’t even imagine working in the film business, because in Raleigh, that wasn’t really something that crossed my radar.

Then I saw an ad in the New York Times magazine for a six-week summer workshop at NYU. I took the course, moved to New York and set out to become a film editor. In the beginning, I did a lot of PA work for commercials and documentaries. Then I got an assistant editor job on a film called Girl From India.

What came next?
My father told me about a guy on the coast of North Carolina, A.B. Cooper, Jr., who wanted to make his own slasher film. I made him an offer: “If I get you an editor, can I be the assistant?” He said yes! About one-third of the way through the film, he fired the editor, and I took over that role. It was only my second film credit. I was never an assistant again, which is to the benefit of every editor that ever worked — I was terrible at it!

Where you able to make a living editing at that point?
Not as a picture editor, but I really started getting paid full-time for my editing when I started cutting industrials at AT&T. From there, I worked my way to 48 Hours. While I was there, they were kind enough to let me take on independent film projects for very little money, and they would hire me back after I did the job.

After a while, I moved to LA and started doing whatever I could get my hands on. I started with TV movies and gradually indie films, which really started for me with Sling Blade. Then, I worked my way into the studios after Crash. I’ve been kind of going back and forth ever since.

You mention your love of movies. What are the stories that inspire you? The ones that you get really excited to tell?
The movie that made me want to work in the film business was Barry Lyndon. Though it was not, by far, the film that got me started. I grew up on Truffaut. All his movies were just, for me, wonderful. It was a bit of a religion for me in those days; it gave me sustenance. I grew up on The Graduate. I grew up on Midnight Cowboy and Blow-Up.

I didn’t have a specific story I was interested in telling. I just knew that editing would be good for me. I like solitary jobs. I could never work on the set. It’s too crazy and social for me. I like being able to fiddle in the editing room and try things. The bottom line is, it’s fun. It can be a grind, and there can be a bit of pressure, but the best experiences I’ve had have been when I everybody on the show was having fun and working together. Films are made better when that collaboration is exploited to the limit.

Speaking of collaboration, how did that work on a film like Fences? What about working with actor/director Denzel Washington?
I’d worked with Denzel before [on The Great Debaters], so I kind of knew what he liked. They shot in Pittsburgh, but I didn’t go on location. There was no real collaboration the first six weeks but because I had worked with him before I had a sense of what he wanted.

I didn’t have to talk to him in order to put the film together because I could watch dailies — I could watch and listen to direction on camera and see how he liked to play the scenes. I put together the first cut on my own, which is typical, but in this case it was without almost any input. And my cut was really close. When Denzel came back, we concentrated in a few places on getting the performances the way he really wanted them, but I was probably 85 percent there. That’s not because I’m so great either, by the way, it’s because the actors were so great. Their performances were amazing, so I had a lot to choose from.

Can you talk about editing a film that was adapted from a play?
It was a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, so I wasn’t going to be taking anything out of it or moving anything around. All I had to do was concentrate on putting it together with strong performances — that’s a lot harder than it sounds. I’m working within these constraints where I can’t do anything, really. Not that I really wanted to. Have you seen the movie?

Yes, I loved it. It’s a movie I’ve been coming back to every day since I’ve seen it. I’ve been thinking about it a lot.
Then you’ll remember that the first 45 minutes to an hour is like a machine gun. That’s intentional. That’s me, intentionally, not slowing it down. I could have, but the idea is — and this is what was tricky — the film is about rhythm. Editing is about rhythm anyway, but this film is like rhythm to the 50th degree.

There’s very little music in the film, and we didn’t temp with much music either. I remember when Marc Evans [president, Motion Picture Group, Paramount Pictures] saw this film, he said, “The language is the music.” That’s exactly right.

To me, the dialogue feels like a score. There’s a musicality to it, a certain beat and timbre where it’s leading the audience through the scene, pulling them into the emotion without even hearing what they’re saying. Like when Denzel’s talking machine gun fast and it’s all jovial, then Lyons comes in and everything slows down and becomes very tense, then the scene busts back open and it’s all happy and fun again.
Yeah. You can just quote yourself on that one. [Laughs] That’s a perfect summation of it.

Partially, that’s going to come from set, that’s the acting and the direction, but on some level you’re going to have to construct that. How conscious of that were you the entire time?
I was very conscious of it. Where it becomes a little bit dicey at times is, unlike a play, you can cut. In a play, you’re sitting in the audience and watching everybody on stage at the same time. In a film, you’re not. When you start cutting, now you’ve got a new rhythm that’s different from the stage. In so doing, you’ve got to maintain that rhythm. You can’t just be on Denzel the entire time or Viola. You need to move around, and you need to move around in a way that rhythmically stays in time with the language. That was hard. That’s what we worked on most of the time after Denzel came back. We spent a lot of time just trying to make the rhythms right.

I think that’s one of the most difficult jobs an editor has, is choosing when to show someone saying something and when to show someone’s reaction to the thing being said. One example is when Troy is telling the story of his father, and you stay on him the entire time.
Hughes: Right.

The other side of that coin is when Troy reveals his secret to Rose and the reveal is on her. You see that emotion hit her and wash over her. When I was watching the movie, I thought, “That is the moment Viola Davis won an Oscar.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I agree.

I think that’s one of the most difficult jobs as an editor, knowing when to do what. Can you speak to that?
When I put this film together initially, I over-cut it, and then I tried to figure out where I wanted to be. It gets over-cut because I’m trying the best I can to find out what the core of the scene is. By I’m also trying to do that with what I consider to be the best performances. My process is, I start with that, and then I start weeding through it, getting it down and focusing; trying to make it as interesting as I can, and not predictable.

In the scenes that you’re talking about, it was all about Viola’s reaction anyway. Her reaction was going to be almost more interesting than whatever he says. I watched it a few times with audiences, and I know from talking to Denzel that when he did it on stage, there’s like a gasp.

When I saw it, everybody in the theatre was like, “What?” It was great.
I know, I know. It was so great. On the stage, people would talk to him, yell at him [Denzel]. “Shame on you, Denzel!” [laughs]. Then, she went into the backyard and did the scene, and that was the end of it. I’d never seen anything like it before. Honestly. It blew me away.

I was cutting that scene at my little home office. My wife was working behind me on her own stuff, and I was crying all the time. Finally, she turned around and asked, “What is wrong with you?” I showed it to her, and she had the same response. It took eight takes to get there, but when she got it, it was amazing. I don’t think too many actresses can do what Viola did. She’s so exposed. It’s just remarkable to watch.

There were three editors on Guardians of the Galaxy — you, Fred Raskin and Craig Wood. How did that work?
Marvel films are, generally speaking, 12 months from shoot to finish. I was on the film for eight months. Craig came in and took over for me. Having said that, it’s hard with two editors or just multiple editors in general. You have to divvy up scenes. Stuff would come in and we would decide together who was going to do it. I got the job because of Fred. I’d known Fred for 25 years. Fred was my intern on Drunks.

Fred had a prior relationship with James Gunn [director of Guardians]. In most cases, I deferred to Fred’s judgment as to how he wanted to divvy up the scenes, because I didn’t have much of a relationship with James when we started. I’d never done a big CG film. For me, it was a revelation. It was fun, trying to cut a dialogue scene between two sticks. One was tall, and one was short — the green marking was going to be Groot, and the other one was going to be Rocket Raccoon.

Can you talk about the importance of the assistant editor in the editorial process? How many assistants did you have on Fences?
On Fences, I had a first and a second. I started out cutting on film, and the assistant editor was a physical job. Touch it, slice it, catalog it, etc. What they have to do now is so complicated and technical that I don’t even know how to do it. Over my career, I’ve pretty much worked with a couple of assistants the whole time. John Breinholt and Heather Mullen worked with me on Fences. I’ve known Heather for 30 years.

What do you look for in an assistant?
Somebody who is going to be able to organize my life when I’m editing; I’m terrible at that. I need them to make sure that things are getting done. I don’t want to think about everything that’s going on behind the scenes, especially when I’m cutting, because it takes a lot of concentration for me just to sit there for 10 hours a day, or even longer, and concentrate on trying to put the movie together.

I like to have somebody that can look at my stuff and tell me what’s working and what’s isn’t. You get a different perspective from different assistants, and it’s really important to have that relationship.

You talked about working on Guardians for eight months, and I read that you cut Fences in six. What do you do to decompress and take care of your own mental health during those time periods?
Good question. It’s hard. When I was working on Fences, I was on the Paramount lot. They have a gym there, so I tried to go to the gym every day. It made my day longer, because I’d get there really early, but I’d go to the gym and get on the treadmill or something for 45 minutes, and that always helped.

Finally, for those who are young or aspiring editors, do you have any words of wisdom?
I think the once piece of advice is to keep going. It helps if you know what you want to do. So many people in this business don’t survive. There can be a lot of lean years, and there certainly were for me in the beginning — I had at least 10. You just have to stay in the game. Even if you’re not working at what you want to do, it’s important to keep working. If you want to be an editor, or a director, you have to practice.

Also, have fun. It’s a movie. Try and have a good time when you’re doing it. You’ll do your best work when you’re relaxed.


Chris Visser is a Wisconsin kid who works and lives in LA. He is currently an assistant editor working in scripted TV. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter.

An image scientist weighs in about this year’s SciTech winners

While this year’s Oscar broadcast was unforgettable due to the mix up in naming the Best Picture, many in the industry also remember actors Leslie Mann and John Cho joking about how no one understands what the SciTech Awards are about. Well, Shed’s SVP of imaging science, Matthew Tomlinson, was kind enough to answer some questions about the newest round of winners and what the technology means to the industry.

As an image scientist, what was the most exciting thing about this year’s Oscars’ Scientific and Technical Awards?
As an imaging scientist, I was excited about the five digital cameras — Viper, Genesis, Sony 65, Red Epic and Arri — that received accolades. I’ve been working with each of these cameras for years, and each of them has had a major impact in the industry. They’ve pioneered the digital revolution and have set a very high standard for future cameras that appear on the market.

The winners of the 2017 SciTech Awards. Credit: Todd Wawrychuk/A.M.P.A.S.

Another exciting aspect is that you actually have access to your “negative” with digital cameras and, if need be, you can make adjustments to that negative after you’ve exposed it. It’s an incredibly powerful option that we haven’t even realized the full potential of yet.

From an audience perspective, even though they’ll never know it, the facial performance capture solving system developed by ILM, as well as the facial performance-based software from Digital Domain and Sony Pictures Imageworks, is incredibly exciting. The industry is continuously pushing the boundaries of the scope of the visual image. As stories become more expansive, this technology helps the audience to engage with aliens or creatures that are created by a computer but based on the actions, movements and emotions of an actor. This is helping blur the lines between reality and fantasy. The best part is that these tools help tell stories without calling attention to themselves.

Which category or discipline saw the biggest advances from last year to this year? 
The advancements in each technology that received an award this year are based on years of work behind the scenes that led up to this moment. I will say that from an audience perspective, the facial animation advancements were significant this past year. We’re reaching a point where audiences are unaware major characters are synthetic or modified. It’s really mind blowing when you think about it.

Sony’s Toshihiko Ohnishi.

Which of the advancements will have the biggest impact on the work that you do, specifically?
The integration of digital cameras and intermixing various cameras into one project. It’s pretty common nowadays to see the Sony, Alexa and Red camera all used on the same project. Each one of these cameras comes with its own inherent colorspace and particular attributes, but part of my job is to make sure they can all work together — that we can interweave the various files they create — without the colorist having to do a lot of technical heavy lifting. Part of my job as an Imaging Scientist is handling the technicalities so that when creatives, such as the director, cinematographer and colorist, come together they can concentrate on the art and don’t have to worry about the technical aspects much at all.

Are you planning to use, or have you already begun using, any of these innovations in your work?

The digital cameras are very much part of my everyday life. Also, in working with a VFX house, I like to provide the knowledge and tools to help them view the imagery as it will be seen in the DI. The VFX artist spends an incredible amount of time and effort on every pixel they work on and it’s a real goal of mine to make sure that the work that they create is the best it can be throughout the DI.

The A-List: La La Land‘s Oscar-winning DP Linus Sandgren

By Iain Blair

Even though it didn’t actually win the Best Picture Oscar, La La Land was honored with five Academy Awards this year, including one for Best Cinematography for Linus Sandgren. This Swedish director of photography, known for his kinetic work with David O. Russell on American Hustle and Joy, collaborated closely with La La Land’s Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle.

Shooting with anamorphic lenses and 35mm film on Panavision Millennium XL2s (with one 16mm sequence) — and capturing his first musical — Sandgren rose to the challenge set by Chazelle (“make it look magical rather than realistic”) by continually pushing the film’s technical and creative boundaries.

That approach is showcased in the bravura opening traffic jam sequence where the camera feels like one of the dancers and part of the choreography. Designed to look like one unbroken shot, it’s actually three, carefully rehearsed, then shot on the freeway ramp over a weekend and stitched together invisibly and seamlessly. For another tour-de-force sequence where stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone literally fly up into the stars of the Griffith Observatory planetarium, the team used wires and bluescreen on a set, as filming wasn’t allowed in the real location.

I recently talked to Sandgren about shooting the film, working with Chazelle (see our interview with the director), the digital workflow and the importance of post to him as a DP.

Is it fair to say that the camera functions almost like another character in this film?
Yes, our whole approach was to let the camera act as both a curious character, with very active movement, as well as a musical instrument, so we had to move the camera to the rhythm of the music. We also designed many scenes in three- to six-minute-long single takes that often included a Steadicam that had to step on or off a crane, and sometimes we needed to shoot the scene in a very limited timeframe of about 20 minutes.

Was the framing also quite demanding?
Damien wanted the film to be very anamorphic and do it in 35mm with the old scope format — before the standard became 2.40:1 — so we did it in 2.55:1 like the old CinemaScope. Then I talked to Panavision and they built some new ground glasses for us, which added to the magic we were trying to capture in the look.

Damien told me that you and colorist Natasha Leonnet actually set the template for the look and color palette even before the shoot?
Yes, we began with the tests. To me, it’s really important to try and establish the look in camera as much as possible, so that it’s as natural as possible in post and you don’t have to tweak too much later. So in the test, in order to get that “Technicolor look,” we explored introducing blues and cyans into the blacks, and we tested anything from push process (over-developing) and under-exposing, and pull process (under-develop) and over-exposing the film. The push process gave us more contrast and grain, while the pull process gave us a softer look and finer grain, which we thought was more pleasing.

How did you deal with the dailies?
We decided we were going to use Efilm’s Cinemascan dailies, which meant we scanned all the negative with an Arri scanner instead of the telecine version, and then in post we re-scanned the negative in 6K and downconverted it to 4K. All the tests were done with Natasha, but for the shoot itself, I used my dailies colorist, Matt Wallach from EC3 Lab, which is the location operation run by Efilm and Company 3 together. It’s the same workflow I used on Joy and also on the upcoming Battle of the Sexes. Each day of the shoot the film was sent to Fotokem, who under-developed it one stop, and then it was scanned at EC3.

Linus Sandgren with is Oscar at the Lionsgate Oscar party.

Where did you do the DI?
With Natasha at Efilm. She got all the settings from the EDL and we generally tried to stay with the dailies look, which we were all pretty happy with. We used some windows and worked on the blacks, and me and Damien had about three to four weeks working on the DI, but not every day. We’d go back and forth, and Natasha also did some work by herself. I’m really involved with the whole DI process, and I even ended up doing a last remote session with Natasha from Company 3’s place in London when I was there at the end of the DI.

Obviously, the shoot’s the main focus for any DP, but just how important is the whole post process for you?
It’s incredibly important, and I love the DI and post process. The most important thing for me is that the film’s look is already established before we start shooting, and therefore it’s very important to involve post production creatives in preproduction. I could never shoot a project where people say, “Don’t worry, we’ll fix the look in post.” I want to go into the DI knowing that we already have the look, and then we can work on fine-tuning it.

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.

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.

Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.

The A-List: Hidden Figures director/co-writer Ted Melfi

By Iain Blair

When writer/producer/director Ted Melfi (St. Vincent) first came across the true story behind his new film, Hidden Figures, he was amazed that it had never been told before. The drama recounts the history of an elite team of black female mathematicians at NASA who helped win the all-out space race against the Soviet Union and, at the same time, brought issues of race, equal rights, sexism and opportunity to the surface of 1960s society.

Focusing on a trio of women who crossed gender, race and professional lines, it stars Oscar-nominee Taraji P. Henson (Empire, Benjamin Button), Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station, The Help), singer Janelle Monáe (making her motion picture debut) and two-time Oscar winner Kevin Costner (Field of Dreams, Dances With Wolves).

Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.

Ted Melfi

Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the film was written by Melfi and screenwriter Allison Schroeder (they both received Oscar noms for Best Adapted Screenplay), who reports that the subject matter was already embedded in her DNA. “I grew up a NASA baby in Florida,” she explains. “My grandparents and dad all worked there, and then I interned there for four years during high school and worked for a missile launch company after my freshman year at college.” She then channeled that family history and her own workplace experiences into a story about “what it was like to be a woman in science and mathematics back then.”

Not long ago, I spoke with Melfi about making the film and his workflow.

This is a very timely film, dealing as it does with racism, sexism and all the issues with Russia and the space race. Was that the appeal?
Absolutely. It’s a completely unknown true story for many reasons, the main one being that all the material was classified for so long because of the Cold War and our fear of Russia. So everyone on the space program was sworn to secrecy, and even the astronauts themselves didn’t know who’d be flying until days before a launch.

While we have parades celebrating astronauts, athletes and so on, we don’t have parades for mathematicians. So I wanted to make an American classic, a movie about this crossroads in America where you had the fight for civil rights and the space race. That’s how I saw it in my mind — how did all that collide?

Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.You got a great cast. How tough was it casting the women?
Taraji was my first thought for her role and she said yes right away on the phone after I just pitched her the storyline. Octavia was also on board right away. Janelle was the hard one, in that it was tough casting her role. We wanted someone fresh and different, and once she came in to audition, we knew she was perfect for it, and she just blew it away.

Did you get a lot of cooperation from NASA?
Not only did we get tons of help from them, but I’ve become good friends with some of the guys there. They pored through draft after draft, gave notes and really helped us craft all the math. So everything in the film is completely accurate from a scientific, mathematical and engineering standpoint, and they were so helpful. We also had a math scholar who helped us and Taraji with her math and all the equations, so we spent a lot of time on research.

What was the biggest production challenge?
How to pull off the space race, because we were essentially a low budget film — a $25 million movie — and we didn’t have the money or time to recreate all the launches and rocket stuff. So we had to find a very clever way of combining archival footage and VFX with all the live-action footage. You see those transitions throughout the film; we’ll have a piece of archival footage and then roll right into something we shot, with all the VFX incorporated into that.

Getting all that archival footage was both tricky and easy — easy as NASA has a huge archive, but they also have a lot of footage that they couldn’t find. So we had to send a film historian specialist to DC to dig through all of NASA’s film reel archives in this massive vault, and that was a lot of work, since they have thousands and thousands of them of every piece of footage ever shot of all the launches and landings and so on. We wanted the original negatives, and he was able to get almost all of them. Then we re-scanned them and blended them into our footage.

You shot on location in Atlanta. Was that tough?
Yes, in that we had just 43 days, which is very short for something of this scope.

Given that sexism is a main theme, and there’s so much talk now about Hollywood’s lack of diversity, was it intentional or coincidental that you hired a female DP, Mandy Walker?
It was a bit of both. I met with a bunch of DPs, and she was just great. It’s a shame that just three percent of the world’s DPs are women. So I try to approach my professional life with a very inclusive attitude, just in general, which means you have to work at it and be pro-active, and 35 percent of our crew were female, and extremely diverse.

Do you like post?
I love it, until you get to the very end. (Laughs) For me, after the shoot, when I literally feel like collapsing because I’m so tired and exhausted. Then I get to this room with a couch, and can finally sit down. So it’s like a vacation in a way, where I get to enjoy and discover stuff every day. At times it’s depressing, when there are problems, but it’s mainly a time of exuberance and joy for me. But at the end, say the last month, it becomes the same as the shoot, with all the time and money constraints, and the pressure to get it done in time.

Where did you do the post?
All on the Fox lot. We did the editing and had our whole team in the same building — our sound team, music guys — and it was awesome, like a small family. The only problem was that we got a very truncated post schedule. Based off all the dailies, the studio decided they wanted to release it early in time for all the awards season stuff, so suddenly we had to deliver it in October instead of for Christmas. That meant we got eight to 10 weeks cut out of post. That left us with just 26 weeks all in, which isn’t very long for something of this scope. Most movies this size get way longer than that. So that was tough.

Tell us about working with editor Peter Teschner, who cut St. Vincent for you. Was he on the set?
Yes, he was in Atlanta with us, cutting from day one as we shot. Basically, I let him do his thing, he puts the movie together in a rough assembly, and we began with a cut at just over two and a half hours. Then we got down to two. Normally, that first rough cut is the most depressing day of your life, but this one wasn’t. There was a lot of work to do, but it was enjoyable work.

Obviously, all the VFX were very important, right?
Very. It’s a period piece, and with all the capsule and rocket scenes there was a lot of stuff to do. We used Cgfluids and ILP for all the VFX, and probably had 400 to 500 shots, and maybe half of those were clean-up, like removing any modern stuff, such as streetlights and cars and so on. But then we had around 100 shots of capsule stuff — the capsules in orbit, pieces of the rocket going up, and then John Glenn’s re-entry and fire scenes.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
It’s so crucial to every scene. People say it’s half your movie, but I think it’s often more. Just watch your movie without sound or music and you go, “This is so awful! It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” but then you start adding all those layers and it suddenly all comes alive. It’s all these little things that add up to huge things and how an audience feels emotionally and how they respond.

I had a great sound team — Andy Nelson was the re-recording mixer and Derek Vanderhorst was the sound designer, and those guys are brilliant. When you’re in space and in the capsule, you need to feel all that, the intensity of the rocket. Then musically we had a great team with Pharrell and Hans Zimmer and Ben Wallfisch. They came on board very early, before we even began proper production, to map out the musical plan. So we had music to shoot to. We shot Taraji’s running scenes to Pharrell’s track, which was a big benefit.

Where did you do the DI?
On the Fox lot with colorist Natasha Leonett from Efilm at their room there. She’s done a ton of films, including La La Land. She’s brilliant.

You’ve had a long and very successful career directing over 100 commercials, so I assume you’re very involved?
You’re right. I’ve been used to doing coloring for over 20 years, as my DP was never around, so Mandy came in for a few days and then I did my thing. It’s the final piece of the post workflow and I love 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.

‘Ex Machina’ VFX team gets Oscar

Artists from London’s Double Negative and Milk VFX took home the Oscar for Best Visual Effects for their work on Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. In winning, Milk’s co-founder, Sara Bennett, became one of two women to ever win the Academy Award for VFX — the other was Suzanne Benson for her work on Aliens during the 59th Academy Awards.

Bennett got the gold along with Double Negative’s Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris and Mark Ardington. This is Dneg’s second win in as many years, taking home the statue for work on last year’s Interstellar.

“I am beyond excited!! We are thrilled and honored to be recognized by The Academy for our work on Ex Machina,” says Bennett. “It was a privilege to work with Alex Garland and to bring his incredible vision to life, alongside Andrew Whitehurst and the Dneg team. I would love to see more women in prominent creative roles in our industry — I was a little shocked to find out I was the third-ever female VFX Oscar nominee.”

“I’m still in shock, I think, but what an incredible experience and what an amazing group of people to represent,” says Double Negative’s Whitehurst

Norris says, “It was an honor and privilege to represent out team at the 88th Academy Awards — it was an amazing experience that’s still sinking in!”

Double Negative

“The whole crew did an incredible job, and should be, rightfully, proud,” says Ardington.  “Our work stands on the shoulders of every other department from day one — from reading Alex Garland’s amazing script, through to the beautiful cinematography, striking production design, ingenious costume and make-up, awesome soundtrack and, of course, the wonderful performances from Alicia, Oscar, Domhnall and Sonoya.  What a journey this has been.”

Double Negative delivered 303 shots for Ex Machina, but that number is slightly deceptive due to the length of the shots — their average shot length was eight seconds and their longest shot was 1,800 frames.

According to Whitehurst, “The work on Ex Machina was focused around the creation of Ava, a robotic character, realized through the careful duplication of Alicia Vikhander’s performance mapped onto a fully articulated CG robotic body.”

Milk VFX, which worked on about 100 shots on the film, designed and created Ava’s CG brain, which is seen during the conversation between Nathan and Caleb in the construction lab. For the design of Ava’s brain, Milk was briefed to use jelly fish references while incorporating a computerized “tech” feel in its design.

Using Side Effects Houdini, the build was fully procedural with strong emphasis on the ability to quickly choreograph and combine major features to reduce the turnaround of versions during the look development phase.

Milk VFX

Starting from a sculpted core mesh, a complex set-up was built to create the main features of the brain, including frills, tentacles, pores, antennae, wireframe cages and air bubbles. The Milk team opted for noise-driven animation over simulations in order to avoid having to rig and animate each shot separately. Collisions were solved by post deforming wires and meshes using volume collision approaches where necessary. The resulting brain asset was then brought into Maya for shading and lighting using Arnold and finally composited in Nuke.

Milk was also tasked with devising a look and style for Ava’s visual point of view — seen at the start of the film when lead character Caleb wins the office lottery, and in the bathroom scene. A range of supporting 2D shots was also created, including environment fixes, compositing and monitor inserts with animated graphics.