Tag Archives: producing

Agent of Sleep: The making of a spec commercial

By Jennifer Walden

Names like Jason Bourne and James Bond make one think “eternal sleep,” not just merely a “restful” one. That’s what makes director/producer/writer Stephen Vitale’s spec commercial for Tempur-Pedic mattresses so compelling. Like a mad scientist crossing a shark with a sheep, Vitale combines an energetic spy/action film aesthetic with the sleepy world of mattress advertising for Agent of Sleep.

Vitale originally pitched the idea to a different mattress brand. “That brand passed, and I decided they were silly to, so I made the spot that exists on spec and chose to use Tempur-Pedic as the featured brand instead. I hear Tempur-Pedic really enjoyed the spot.”

In Agent of Sleep, two assailants fight their way up a stairwell and into a sun-dappled apartment where their altercation eventually leads into a bedroom and onto a comfy (albeit naked) mattress. One assailant applies a choke hold to the other but his grip loosens as he falls fast asleep. The other assailant lies down beside the first and promptly falls asleep too.

LA-based Vitale drew inspiration from Bourne and Bond films. He referenced fight scenes from Haywire, John Wick and Mission Impossible too. “Mostly all of them have a version of the action sequence in Agent of Sleep — a visceral, intimate fight between spies/hired guns that ends with one of them getting choked out. It was about distilling this trope, dropping a viewer right into the middle of it to grab them and immediately establishing visuals that would tap into the familiarity they have with the setup.”

Once the spy/action foundation was in place, Vitale (who is pictured shooting in our main image) added tropes from mattress ads to his concept, like choosing a warmly lit, serene apartment and ending the spot with a couple lying comfortably on a bare mattress as a narrator shares product information. “The spies are bursting into what would be the typical setting for a mattress ad and they upend all of its elements. The visuals reflect that trajectory.”

To achieve the desired cinematic look, Vitale chose the Arri Alexa Mini with Cooke anamorphic lenses, and shot in a wide aspect ratio of 2:66 — wider than the normal cinemascope. “My cinematographer David Bolen and I felt like it gave the confined sets and the close-range fist fight a bigger scope and pushed the piece further away from the look of an ad.”

They shot in a practical location and dressed it to replicate the bedrooms shown in actual Tempur-Pedic product images. As for smashing through the bedroom wall, that wasn’t part of the plan but it did add to the believability of the fight. “That was an accidental alteration to the location,” jokes Vitale.

The handheld camera movement up front adds to the energy of the fight, and Vitale framed the shots to clearly show who is throwing the punch and how hard it landed. “I tried to design longer takes and find angles that created a dance between the camera and the amazing fight work from Yoshi Sudarso and Cory DeMeyers.”

In contrast, the spot ends with steady, smooth shots that exude a calm feeling. Vitale says, “We used a jib and sticks for the end shots because I wanted it to be as tranquil and still as possible to play up the joke.”

Production sound was captured with a Røde NTG-2 boom mic onto a Zoom H5 recorder. The vocalizations from the two spies on-set, i.e. their breaths and efforts, were all used in post. Vitale, who handled the sound design and final mix, says, “I would use alt audio takes and drop in grunts and impact reactions to shots that needed a boost. The main goal was that it felt kinetic throughout and that the fight sounded really visceral. A lot of punch sounds were layered with other sound effects to avoid them feeling canned, and I also did Foley for different moments in the spot to help fill it out and give it a more natural sound.”

The Post
Vitale also handled picture editing using Apple Final Cut Pro 7, which worked out perfectly for him. Editing the spot was pretty straightforward, since he had designed a solid plan for the shoot and didn’t need to cover extra shots and setups. “I usually only shoot what I know I will use,” he says. “The one shot I didn’t use was an insert of the glass the woman drops, shattering on the floor. So structurally, it was easy to find. The rest was about keeping cuts tight, making sure the longer takes didn’t drag and the quicker cuts were still clear and exciting to watch.”

Vitale worked with colorist Bryan Smaller, who uses Blackmagic Resolve. They agreed that fully committing to the action film aesthetic, by playing with contrast levels and grain to keep the image gritty and grounded was the best way of not letting the audience in on the joke until the end. “For the stairwell and hallway, we leaned into the green and orange hues of those respective locations. The apartment has a bit of a teal hue to it and has a much more organic feel, which again was to help transition the spies and the audience into the mattress ad world, so to speak,” explains Vitale.

The icing on the cake was composer Patrick Sullivan’s action film-style score. “He did a great job of bringing the audience into the action and creating tension and excitement. We’ve been friends since elementary school and played in a band together, so we can find what’s working and what’s not pretty quickly. He’s one of my most consistent collaborators, in various aspects of post production, and he always brings something special to the project.”


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based writer. Follow her at @audiojeney on Twitter.

Nancy Myers to receive the ACE’s Filmmaker of the Year Award

Veteran filmmaker Nancy Meyers — who has written, directed and produced such films as The Parent Trap, What Women Want, Something’s Gotta Give, It’s Complicated and The Intern — will be receiving American Cinema Editors’ Golden Eddie Filmmaker of the Year Award. It will be presented to Meyers by long-time collaborator Steve Martin at the 66th Annual ACE Eddie Awards black-tie ceremony on January 29.

Meyers joins a distinguished group of past ACE Golden Eddie honorees, including Frank Marshall, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Norman Jewison, Alexander Payne, James Cameron, Clint Eastwood, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Kathleen Kennedy, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, Saul Zaentz, Paul Greengrass and Stanley Donen, among others.

ACE, the entertainment industry’s honorary society of film editors, comprises over 750 accomplished editors working in film and television. The ACE Eddie Awards recognize outstanding editing in 10 categories of film, television and documentaries.  Nominees for the 66th Annual ACE Eddie Awards will be announced on January 4.

The A-List: Director Cary Fukunaga on posting ‘Beasts of No Nation’

By Iain Blair

Writer/director/camera operator/cinematographer Cary Fukunaga has literally been one of the hottest — and coldest — directors in the business, thanks to making shorts, docs and movies everywhere from the Arctic Circle to Haiti and East Africa.

Now he’s hot again, in every sense of the word, having written/directed/produced and shot the harrowing new war drama Beasts of No Nation, set in the sweltering lands of West Africa, and shot in Ghana. It tells the story of Agu (Abraham Attah), a young villager, whose happy family life and childhood are shattered when army troops from the capital city arrive to squelch a rebellion against the country’s corrupt regime.

After seeing his father and brother killed, he escapes to the forest where he’s discovered by a company of young rebels led by the charismatic Commandant (Idris Elba). There, he undergoes a gauntlet of harsh treatment, initiation rituals and fiery speeches from the Commandant, and as the ragtag army sets off on a series of battles, Agu is eventually promoted from ammo carrier to rifle-toting soldier, gaining respect but losing his innocence as he’s turned into a killing machine. The film is available exclusively on Netflix.

Writer Iain Blair and filmmaker Cary Fukunaga.

Writer Iain Blair and filmmaker Cary Fukunaga.

I spoke with Fukunaga — whose credits include his acclaimed feature-writing and directing debut Sin Nombre, Jayne Eyre and the first season of HBO’s crime drama True Detective (for which he won the Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series) — about making the film, post and his respect for film sound.

Did you have a vision for how this film would look?
Yes, and it’s the film I wrote (laughs), but I don’t really visualize my films ahead of time. I’m not even sure about the music, so I start off definitely from a writing perspective and when scouting locations I start getting visual ideas. Obviously, I do have some visual ideas in my head or I couldn’t write it, but it’s such a work in progress… every step of the way. It was such a hard, brutal shoot — the hardest I’ve ever done, anywhere, and I’ve shot in some very difficult places around the world.

So post must have been a very calm respite after the grueling locations of West Africa?
I like post. It’s where you really make and finish the film, but I’m so used to being very hands-on in all the other production departments — writing, directing, camera operating and so on — that by the time I get to post, it feels very strange to be relegated to the role of almost an observer. And the rhythm is always fits and starts. You get in there and it seems like nothing’s happening for weeks, and then finally you make some progress, and then that all repeats. So post is definitely not my favorite part of the whole process, just because of the sheer time it all takes and how much I’m not hands-on anymore.

Beasts of No Nation DSC_4260.jpg

How did it work in the editing room with two editors —Mikkel E.G. Nielsen (A Royal Affair) and Pete Beaudreau (All Is Lost, The Gambler)?
Originally, a third editor, Elliot Graham (Steve Jobs, Milk) was on the shoot with us, but he hurt his back and had to drop out. We had roughly 75 hours of raw footage from Ghana, so Mikkel took over and had to completely learn all that footage again and then started re-cutting and re-assembling the film a couple of months after we wrapped. That was at Outpost Digital in New York. Then after five months on it, he had to leave for another job, so Pete took over — and we thought it would just be clean up by that point, but he ended up working on it for another five months. If you think of Mikkel’s work as hammering out the shape of the sword, Pete put on the fine edge to every scene.

So post was pretty long?
Yes, we did it all at Outpost. We were there almost a year, and we started on post while we were shooting in Ghana. Our associate editor, Victoria Lesiw, started off as an assistant editor in Ghana and was there all the way through and completely invested, from production to the very last days of post. We lost people along the way, so post wasn’t at all easy; people had to bow out because of previous commitments. We lost our original sound designer just weeks before we started our mix, and we had to completely redo it all in a very short time — just five weeks, which wasn’t really enough for the film — but we were able to create something out of nothing.

Although the film feels like cinéma vérité, obviously you used VFX, especially in all the battles scenes. How many visual effects shots are there?
Quite a few. There was a lot of clean up, and a lot of artifacts of war — bullet hits on walls, blood squibs — which we didn’t have time to do as usual physical effects, as well as muzzle flashes and augmenting explosions and so on. Then we had the big infra-red sequence. I’d written the screenplay back in 2006, and I loved the infrared sequence Oliver Stone and Rodrigo Prieto had done in Alexander, so I always wanted to do it. I wanted to shoot some infrared in True Detective, but we just couldn’t find the film stock — we just did it as a VFX sequence for this. Siren Lab did most of them,  but The Artery also did some shots.Beasts of No Nation

Sound and music both play a huge role in this, right?
I actually think they’re more important than the visuals. I had this great video class teacher in high school, who said, “People will forgive bad visuals, but they’ll never forgive bad sound,” and that’s so true. If there’s something wrong with the sound, it can be the most grating part of watching any kind of media, but if you do it right you can really elevate the storytelling. Look at what Walter Murch did…  and Orson Welles, who came from radio. They really understood how much sound can tell a story, and have been a big influence for me. So when I do sound design, sometimes I’ll do entire sequences where that’s driving the entire story. We did all the mixing at Harbor Picture Company in New York. (The mix crew at Harbor included supervising sound editor Glenfield Payne, re-recording Mixer Martin Czembor, assistant sound re-recording mixer Josh Berger and re-recording mix technician Ian Gaffney Rosenfeld. The film was mixed using a Euphonix S5 Fusion console. The Euphonix was controlling 2 Pro Tools systems running Pro Tools 11.)

Where was the DI?
At Deluxe in New York with Steve Bodner (who uses DaVinci Resolve), the same colorist I used on True Detective. He’s the guy I go to for anything. We did some looks before I left, but more than anything we just get in the room and figure it all out. I love the DI, and by that stage I feel much more hands-on. We did a lot of work because the whole issue with digital is that you spend so much time trying to get back to a film look. So you sit there, massaging and massaging it, trying to get the color space right, and every film stock’s different.

Cary Fukunago shooting with the Arri Alexa.

Cary Fukunago shooting with the Arri Alexa.

I really love old photo journalism reversal stock. If I could have shot Sin Nombre on Kodachrome I would have — and part of that is the unforgiving nature of reversal stock. There’s no reciprocity there. Now, six, seven years later, shooting with the Arri Alexa, I was again looking how to approximate that slightly under-exposed reversal look for this film. I found that by shooting one stop under —and bringing in a lot of cyans and the blacks, but keeping the saturation up, and then figuring out how to make all the greens, yellows and browns really pop — it gave me the look I wanted.

There’s a lot of talk that you’ll do another TV project, a miniseries based on Caleb Carr’s novel The Alienist. So what’s next?
I’m definitely involved with The Alienist, but I may do something else before then. It depends on the timing.

Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors and artists 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.