Tag Archives: Ron Howard

The A-List: Director Ron Howard discusses National Geo’s Genius

By Iain Blair

Ron Howard has done it all in Hollywood. The former child star of The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days not only successfully made the tricky transition to adult actor (at 22 he starred opposite John Wayne in The Shootist and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), but went on to establish himself as an Oscar-winning director and producer (A Beautiful Mind). He is also one of Hollywood’s most beloved and commercially successful and versatile helmers.

Since making his directorial debut in 1977 with Grand Theft Auto (when he was still on Happy Days), he’s made an eclectic group of films about boxers (Cinderella Man), astronauts (Apollo 13), mermaids (Splash), symbologists (The Da Vinci Code franchise), politicians (Frost/Nixon) firefighters (Backdraft), mathematicians (A Beautiful Mind), Formula One racing (Rush), whalers (In the Heart of the Sea) and the Fab Four (his first documentary, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week).

Born in Oklahoma with showbiz in his DNA — his parents were both actors — Howard “always wanted to direct” and notes that “producing gives you control.” In 1986, he co-founded Imagine Entertainment with Brian Grazer, a powerhouse in film and TV (Empire, Arrested Development) production. His latest project is the new Genius series for National Geographic.

The 10-part global event series — the network’s first scripted series — is based on Walter Isaacson’s book “Einstein: His Life and Universe” and tracks Albert Einstein’s rise from humble origins as an imaginative and rebellious thinker through his struggles to be recognized by the establishment, to his global celebrity status as the man who unlocked the mysteries of the cosmos with his theory of relativity.

But if you’re expecting a dry, intellectual by-the-numbers look at his life and career, you’re in for a big surprise.

With an impressive cast that includes Geoffrey Rush as the celebrated scientist in his later years, Johnny Flynn as Einstein in the years before he rose to international acclaim and Emily Watson as his second wife — and first cousin — Elsa Einstein, the show is full of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

We’re mostly joking, but the series does balance the hard-to-grasp scientific theories with an entertaining exploration of a man with an often very messy private life as it follows Einstein’s alternately exhilarating emotions and heartlessness in dealing with his closest personal relationships, including his children, his two wives and the various women with whom he cheats on them.

Besides all the personal drama, there’s plenty of global drama as Genius is set against an era of international conflict over the course of two world wars. Faced with rising anti-Semitism in Europe, surveillance by spies and the potential for atomic annihilation, Einstein struggles as a husband and a father, not to mention as a man of principle, even as his own life is put in danger.

I talked recently with Ron Howard about directing the first episode and his love of production and post.

What was the appeal of doing this and making your scripted television directorial debut with the first episode?
I’ve become a big fan of all the great TV shows people are doing now, where you let a story unfold in a novelistic way, and I was envious of a lot of my peers getting into doing TV — and this was a great project that just really suits the TV format. Over the years, I had read various screenplays about Einstein but they just never worked as a movie, so when National Geographic wanted to reach out to their audience in a more ambitious way, suddenly there was this perfect platform to do this life justice and have the length it needed. It’s an ideal fit, and it was perfect to do it with National Geographic.

Given that you had considered making a film about him, how familiar were you with Einstein and his life? How do you find the drama in an academic’s life?
I thought I had some insight, but I was blown away by the book and Noah Pink’s screenplay, and everyone on the team brought their own research to the process, and it became more and more fascinating. There was this constant pressure on Einstein that I felt we could work with through the whole series, and that I never realized was there. And with that pressure, there’s drama. We came very close to not benefiting from his genius because of all the forces against him – sometimes from external forces, like governments and academic institutions, but often from his own foibles and flaws. He was even on a hit list. So I was really fascinated by his whole story.

What most surprised you about Einstein once you began delving deeper into his private life?
That he was such a Lothario! He had quite a complicated love life, but it was also that he had such a dogged commitment to his principles and logic and point-of-view. I was doing post on the Beatles documentary as we prepped, and it was the same thing with those young men. They often didn’t listen to outside influences and people telling them it couldn’t be done. They absolutely committed to their musical vision and principles with all their drive and focus, and it worked — and collectively I think you could say the band was genius.

Einstein also trusted his convictions, whether it was physics or math, and if the conventional answers didn’t satisfy his sense of logic, he’d just dig deeper. The same thing can be said for his personal life and relationships, and trying to find a balance between his career and life’s work, and family and friends. Look at his falling in love with his fellow physics student Mileva Maric, which causes all sorts of problems, especially when she unexpectedly gets pregnant. No one else thought she was particularly attractive, she was a bit of an outcast as the only female physics student, and yet his logic called him to her. The same thing with politics. He went his own way in everything. He was a true renaissance man, eternally curious about everything.

In terms of dealing with very complex ideas that aren’t necessarily very cinematic, it must have helped that you’d made A Beautiful Mind?
Yes, we saw a lot of similarities between the two. It really helped that both men were essentially visualists — Einstein even more so than John Nash. That gave us a big advantage and gave me the chance to show audiences some of his famous thought experiments in cinematic ways, and he described them very vividly and they’re a fantastic jumping-off point — it was his visualizations that helped him wrap his head around the physics. He began with something he could grasp physically and then went back to prove it with the math. Those principles gave him the amazing insights about the nature of the universe, and time and space, that we’ve all benefitted from.

I assume you began integrating post and all the VFX very early on?
Right away, in preproduction meetings in Prague, in the Czech Republic, where Einstein lived and taught early in his career. We had our whole team there on location, including our VFX supervisor Eric Durst and his team, DP Mathias Herndl, our production designers and art directors and so on. With all the VFX, we stayed pretty close to how Einstein described his thought experiments. The one that starts off this first episode is very vivid, whereas the first one he has as a 17-year-old boy is done in a more chalk-board kind of way, where he faints and can barely hang on mentally to the image. All the dailies and visual effects were done by UPP.

Where did you do the post?
We did all the editing and sound back in LA.

Do you like the post process?
I love it. I love the edit and slowly pulling it all together after the stress of the shoot.

It was edited by James Wilcox, who’s done CSI: Miami and Hawaii Five-O, along with Debby Germino and J. Kathleen Gibson. How early was James involved and was he on set?
Dan and Mike weren’t available. It’s the first time I’d worked with James and he’s very creative and did a great job. He wasn’t on the set, but we were constantly in communication and we’d send him material back to LA and then when I got back, we sat down together.

The show constantly cuts back and forth in time.
Yes, I was fascinated by all those transitions and I worked very closely with my team to make sure we had all that down, and that it all flowed smoothly in the edit. For instance, Johnny Flynn plays violin and he trained classically, so he actually plays in all those scenes. But Geoffrey doesn’t play violin, but he practiced for several months, and we had a teacher on set too. Geoffrey was so dedicated to creating this character.They both looked at tons of footage of Einstein as an older man, so Johnny could develop aspects of Einstein’s manner and behavior as the younger one, which Geoffrey could work with later, so we had a real continuity to the character. That’s a big reason why I wanted to be so hands-on with the first episode, as we were defining so many key aspects of the man and the aesthetics and the way we’d be telling the whole story.

Can you talk about working on the sound and music?
It’s always huge to me and adds so much to every scene. Lorne Balfe wrote a fantastic score and we had a great sound team: production sound mixer Peter Forejt, supervising sound editor Daniel Pagan, music editor Del Spiva and re-recording mixers Mark Hensley and Bob Bronow. For post production audio we used Smart Post Sound.

The DI must have been important?
It was very important since we were trying to do stuff with the concept of time in very subtle ways using the camera work, the palette and the lighting style. This all changed subtly depending on whether it was an Einstein memory, or a flashback to his younger, brasher self, or looking ahead to the iconic older man where it was all a little more formal. So we went for different looks to match the different energies and, of course, the editing style had to embody all of that as well. The colorist was Pankaj Bajpai, and he did a great job.

What’s next?
I plan to do more TV. Remember, I came out of TV and it’s so exciting now. I’m also developing several movie projects, including Seveneves, a sci-fi film, and Under the Banner of Heaven which is based on the Jon Krakauer bestseller. So whatever comes together first.


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

The A-List: Mike Hill on editing ‘In the Heart of the Sea’

By Randi Altman

Herman Melville’s novel, Moby-Dick, is a classic tale of man versus whale. The famously long book — commonly used as a metaphor for fighting one’s demons — is known for its obsessed protagonist Captain Ahab and its famous first line, “Call me Ishmael.” What people might not know is the book was based on the true story of a whaling ship called, the Essex, which in 1820 was attacked by a giant whale, leaving the crew fighting the elements, starvation and this monster of the sea.

In the recent film by director Ron Howard, In the Heart of the Sea, viewers get to know the story that Moby-Dick was based on. To help tell the tale, Howard called on veteran editor and long-time collaborator Mike Hill, who has edited 23 films for the director and collaborated on about 30.

L-R: Ron Howard, Dan Hanley, basketball's Steve Nash and Mike Hill, who worked together on Iconoclasts.

L-R: Ron Howard, Dan Hanley, basketball’s Steve Nash and Mike Hill, who worked together on the “Iconoclasts” documentary series.

For Arri Alexa-shot In the Heart of the Sea, Hill once again worked with long-time editing partner Dan Hanley, with whom he shares multiple “Best Editing” Oscar noms and a win for Apollo 13. Hill was kind enough to talk to us about the process of editing and the challenges and joys of cutting Warner Bros.’ In the Heart of the Sea, as well as working with director Howard.

How early in the process did you get involved in this one?
Basically, from the first day of shooting, which was back in the fall of 2013 over in England.

So you were near set?
Yes, we were at Warner Bros. Studio, which is north of London in Leavesden. It’s an old Rolls Royce factory, and they built a big water tank and a replica of the ship, the Essex. Our editing rooms where close by in one of their production buildings.

You and editor Dan Handley have partnered on many of Ron Howard’s films. Was he in London as well?
Yes. He got there earlier and set everything up so we were ready to go.

What about your assistant editors?
Our first assistant was Simon Davis. He is a Brit who we have worked with on several projects. He’s excellent and a very important part of the process. We had some other British second assistants as well, including Jeremy Richardson and our apprentice was Rob Sealey. Back in the States, Simon continued as first assistant but Carolyn Calvert came on as second assistant and Alec Johnson was our apprentice.

Heart of the Sea

Simon pretty much runs the cutting room and the technical aspects of the edit. He’s in charge of all the assistants and oversees everything. He is a wizard at all of that… very knowledgeable, technically oriented and computer savvy. This is a big help, since I’m not much of a computer guy. It’s great to have people like that behind you who let you focus on the job at hand.

This was Ron Howard’s second digitally-shot film?
Yes. Rush, which was about Formula One racing, was the first one he shot with digital cameras. But in terms of editing, we’ve been working digitally since 1996. Ransom was our first film on the Avid Media Composer. Prior to that, we had cut on film, the old-fashioned way.

How does the film being shot digitally affect your edit?
There are a lot of big differences regarding workload and the approach. On film, I developed a discipline — you really had to think about every cut you made and plan things ahead. We tended to let things play a little longer because it’s easier to trim than to put back. That was always our philosophy.

When we started using the Avid, it allowed us to instantly make changes without worrying about cutting into the work print, so you really didn’t have to worry about that so much. We learned that you could be a lot more experimental and try a lot of things without any problems. So that was a big difference.

Mike HIll

You started your career cutting on film. Now that you are editing digitally, are you still instinctually working on that first cut, or does having the ability to try different things change the way you edit?
That’s a good question. The way I approach editing a scene, hasn’t really changed because the way I learned is so engrained in me. But you can try out new ideas and if it doesn’t work you can just get rid of it. I do try those things, but my initial instincts, for the most part, are what end up in the film. Sometimes what you try is crazy and silly and you’re hoping to find something almost by accident, but that doesn’t happen often.

Did it happen at all while editing In the Heart of the Sea?
I don’t recall anything like that. Rush was a little more conducive to that because we had so many different images and angles to work with. We were trying to make it flashy. This film is a more old-fashioned; an old sea epic adventure which is more traditional. It didn’t lend itself to a lot of crazy, flashy editing.

How do you, Dan and Ron work together?
We are a well-oiled machine and have developed a real short hand that doesn’t require much dialogue in most cases. What’s great about working with Ron is he is the kind of director that doesn’t really need or want to be hovering over your shoulder when you’re working. He gives us a lot of freedom.

During the shoot, when he’s on the set, we don’t see him very often, but he might drop in on a break or at night or on the weekend. When he does, he’ll want to see some scenes that have been cut, but for the most part he leaves us alone. Ron gives us some very simple notes from the set sometimes about takes he might like or moments he likes; this is helpful because I use this to guide me along when I start a scene. That’s really all I need.

What about after the shoot?
When he’s done shooting, we try to keep up with the demand in terms of getting the scenes cut together. So by the time the shooting is done, we can show him the entire film within about a week or so. After that we will spend two to three weeks — or whatever it takes — with him and go through the entire film from beginning to end, scene by scene. We get all of his notes and reactions and then he’ll leave us alone again. We’ll dive into those notes and do those, then show it to him again. The process just continues like that — we’re whittling away, improving it, changing some takes, and this goes on for several months. After we start to screen it for audience for reactions, we get a whole other set of notes and adjustment requests.

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA      IN THE HEART OF THE SEA

Considering how often you Howard’s films are there less notes over time?
(Laughs) No, I think it’s more now because he knows that we have the Avid. If there is a certain scene that might have some problems, Ron will give us an idea of what he wants and we’ll try different versions. This all increases the workload. I would say it’s a curse and a blessing all at the same time (laughs again).

When working with Dan, how do you guys decide who gets what scene or sequence?
It’s pretty random. The first scene that comes in, either he’ll take it or I’ll take it. Then the other one of us gets the second scene, and so on. The one thing we try to do throughout is identify the big scenes — the difficult ones and divided those equally between us, making sure that one guy isn’t doing all of the most difficult scenes.

Are you guys cutting in the same space logistically?
We’re in separate rooms, usually on opposite ends of the hallway with our assistants in the middle. What’s nice is every once in awhile if I’m stuck I call Dan in and have him look at something with a fresh eye and perspective. It’s a big help to have a guy you trust help you out like that.

For In the Heart of the Sea, was there a scene that was particularly difficult to cut?
For me there were two big ones. One was the scene where the whale attacks the ship and sinks it. That was shot sporadically throughout the entire schedule because some of it was shot in the tank in London and some was done in the Canary Islands, where they were for the final month and a half of the shoot.

They shot a lot of scenes pertaining to the attack, and I never got a complete set of dailies. I had to keep going back to the scene, adding in more material. It’s one of those scenes that had many different elementmains to it, plus the fact that the whale is all CG, and we really didn’t have temp shots, instead we would print out a storyboard still and use that as a representative cut. It’s one of those situations where you use your imagination to figure out the length of shots because there was really nothing to work with visually. Even though I enjoyed working on this bit, I’m not overly fond of these kinds of scenes because of the guesswork required. To me, the most interesting stuff to edit is the acting.

The other difficult scene was the second whale hunt, which leads up to that moment before Moby Dick attacks. The whales come in a huge pod and are frenzied and agitated. I didn’t have a lot to work with at first; the material would dribble in sporadically. Those are the two big ones that come to mind.

Anything else about the film that stands out?
It might surprise the viewer, but the most difficult sections was probably when they set sail and ran through a storm. Dan dealt with most of that, which I was thankful for. It was difficult because it was hard to set the tone. We needed to get the movie off to a good start, but for some reason it wasn’t quite working the way we wanted. We did solve it eventually; it’s just one of those things. You never know where your problems are going to come from sometimes.

Why was it so difficult?
There’s a lot of activity in those scenes. It was hard to get it all to work, and technically it all had to be correct. We had to have advisors come in and look at it because we didn’t know anything about sailing and there were the certain kind of sails that needed to be set.

IHOTS-TRL-439r     IN THE HEART OF THE SEA

Why do you like using the Avid?
The instant access to any of the takes is great and gives us the ability to experiment. It’s so much more civilized than running your film through sprockets and a Moviola, which is the way I learned. Even the KEM flatbeds seem primitive now compared to the Media Composer. It’s a nice, clean way to work.

Finally, what’s next for you project wise?
I won’t be in the edit suite anytime soon I’m afraid. I’m actually retired, and living in Omaha, my hometown.

Retired?! So that’s it?
Well, I won’t say absolutely not ever, I suppose after some time an irresistible script could suck me back in, but I’m not working on Ron’s current film Inferno, which is now in post. My spot was filled by Tom Elkins, a good friend who lives in Omaha as well. Tom has worked with us over the years as an assistant and then became an editor on some Wes Craven films.

Are you missing it at all?
I’m not missing it yet. Editing can be really rewarding, but at the same time incredibly tedious. I’m 66 now, and on Heart of the Sea I just started to feel like the time had come to ride off into the sunset and live life on my own schedule for a while.  So far it really feels good to slow down a bit and enjoy this new stage of life.

ArsenalFX provides VFX for three short films

 

SANTA MONICA – ArsenalFX (www.arsenalfx.tv), a visual effects and post studio, recently produced visual effects featured within three celebrity-directed short films. These films, which were directed by Eva Longoria, Jamie Foxx, and Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, have just been presented as part of the 2013 Canon/Ron Howard “Project Imagination” Film Festival, both in New York and Los Angeles.

2 And She Was My Eve

And She Was My Eve

ArsenalFX’s creative director Lauren Mayer-Beug was the VFX on-set supervisor during physical production of all three films.

This is the second year in a row for which ArsenalFX has provided visual effects support to this project, which is presented by Ron Howard and Canon. This year, the company contributed VFX to Eva Longoria’s film Out of the Blue (pictured, top, Jamie Foxx’s film, And She Was My Eve, and Stone’s film, Evermore. ArsenalFX produced approximately 80 VFX shots for each of the three films. The company also provided the graphics, titles, and credits for each film as well.

3

Evermore

According to executive producer Ashley Hydrick, ArsenalFX called on Autodesk’s Flame, Lustre and Maya, Maxon’s Cinema 4D, Adobe’s After Effects and Photoshop, and Pixel Farm’s PF Track.