Arraiy 4.11.19

Category Archives: Director

Duo teams up to shoot, post Upside Down music video

The Gracie and Rachel music video Upside Down, a collaboration between the grand prize-winners of Silver Sound Showdown, was written, directed and edited by Ace Salisbury and Adam Khan. Showdown is one-part music video film festival, one-part battle of the bands. In a rare occurrence, Salisbury and Khan, both directors in competition, tied for grand prize with their music videos (RhodoraStairwell My Love). Showdown is held annually at Brooklyn Bowl, a bowling alley and venue in Brooklyn, New York.

Ace Salisbury

We reached out to the directors and the band to find out more about this Silver Sound-produced four-minute offering about a girl slowly unraveling emotionally, which was shot with a Red camera.

What did you actually win? What resources were available to you?
Salisbury: Winning the grand prize got me teamed up with the winning band Gracie and Rachel, and with Adam, to make a music video, with Silver Sound stepping in to offer their team to help shoot and edit, and giving time at their partner’s studio space at Parlay Studios in New Jersey.

Khan: Silver Sound offered a DP, editor and colorist, but Ace and I decided to do of all that ourselves. Parlay Studios graced us with three days in one of their spaces, as well as access to any equipment available. I was a kid in a candy store.

What was it like collaborating with a co-director and a band you had never met before?
Salisbury: Working with a co-director can be great — you can balance the workload, benefit from your differing skillsets and shake up your usual comfort zone for how you go about making work.

It’s important to stop being precious about your vision for the project, and be game to compromise on every idea you bring, but you learn a lot. Having never met Adam before made the whole experience more exciting. I had no ability to predict what he would bring to the project in terms of personality and work style from looking at his reel.

Adam Khan

Making a video with a production company is like having a well-connected producer on your project; once you get them onboard with your idea, all of the resources at their disposal come out of the woodwork, and things like studio space and high-power DPs come into the mix if you want them.

Pitching a music video to a band you’ve never met is interesting. You look at their music, aesthetics and previous music videos and try to predict what direction they’ll want to move in. You want to make them something they’ll embrace and want to promote the hell out of, not sweep under the rug. With Gracie and Rachel, they have such an established aesthetic, the key was figuring out how to take what they had and make it look polished.

Khan: At first I was wary of co-directing, I was concerned our ideas/egos would clash. But after meeting with Ace all worry vanished. Sure both of us had to compromise but there was never any friction; ideas and concepts flowed. Working with a new band requires looking back at their previous work and getting a feel for the aesthetic.

Gracie and Rachel: Collaborating with people you haven’t yet worked with is always a unique experience. You really get to hone your skills when it comes to thinking on your feet and practicing the art of give-and-take. Compromise is important, and so is staying true to your artistic values. If you can learn from others how to expand on what you already know, you’re gaining something powerful.

What is Upside Down about?
Salisbury: Upside Down is a video about emotional unraveling. Gracie portrays a girl whose world literally turns upside down as her mental state deteriorates. She is attached via a long rope to her shadow self, portrayed by Rachel, who takes control of her, pulling her across the floor and suspending her in the air. I co-authored the concept, co-directed and co-edited the video with Adam.

The original concept involved the fabrication of a complicated camera rig that would rotate both the actor and camera together. Imagine a giant rotisserie with the actor strapped in on one side and the camera on another, all rotating together. Just three days before our shoot date, the machine fabricator let us know that there were safety and liability issues which meant they couldn’t give us a finished rig. Adam and I scrambled to put together a modified concept using rope rigging in place of this ill-fated machine.

Khan: Upside Down is abstract; it was our job to make it tangible.

Gracie, you actually performed in upside down. What was that like, and what did you learn from that experience?
Yes, I really was suspended upside down! I trained for that for only about an hour or two prior to the actual shoot with some really lovely aerialist professionals. It was surprising to learn what your body feels like after doing dozens of takes upside down!

Can you talk about the digital glitches in the video?
Salisbury: On set, one of the monitors was seriously glitching out. I took a video of the glitched monitor with my phone and showed it to Adam, saying, “This is what our video needs to look like!”

We tried to match the footage of the glitching monitor on set, manipulating our footage in After Effects. We developed a scrambling technique for randomly generating white blocks on screen. As much as we liked those effects, the original phone video of the glitched monitor ended up making it into the final video.

People might be surprised by how much animation goes into a live-action project that they would never notice. For a project like Upside Down, a lot of invisible animation goes into it, like matting the edges of the spotlight’s spill on the stage floor. Not all animation jobs look like Steamboat Willie.

This video had a few invisible animated elements, like removing stunt wire, removing a spot on the stage, and cleaning up the black portions of the frame.

What did you shoot on?
Khan: This video was shot with a Red Epic Dragon rocking the Fujinon 19-90.

What tools were used for post?
Salisbury: The software used on this video was Adobe Premiere and After Effects—Premiere for the basic assembly of the footage, and After Effects for the heavy graphical lifting and color correct. Everything looks better coming out of After Effects.

Are there tools that you wish you had access to?
Salisbury: Personally, I was pretty happy with the tools we had access to. For this concept, we had everything we needed, tool-wise.

Khan: Faster computers.

How much of what you do is music video work? Do you work differently depending on the genre?
Khan: My focus is music videos, though you can find me working on all types of projects. From the production standpoint, things are the same. The real difference comes from what can be done in front of the camera. In a music video, one does not need to follow the rules. In fact, it is encouraged to break the rules.

Salisbury: I get hired to direct music videos every so often. The budget tends to be what dictates the experience, whether it’s going to be a video of a band rocking out shot on a DSLR or a high-intensity animated spectacle. Music videos can be a chance to establish wild aesthetics without the burden of having to justify them in your film’s world. You can go nuts. It’s a music video!

Where do you find inspiration?
Khan: Inspiration comes from past filmmakers and artists alike. I also pay close attention to my peers, there is some incredible stuff coming out. For this project, we pulled from Gracie and Rachel’s previous songs and visuals.

Salisbury: I find that I’m usually most influenced by old video games, but that wasn’t going to be a good fit for this band. My initial intention was to combine Gracie and Rachel’s aesthetic with a Quay Brothers aesthetic, but things shifted a bit by the end of the project.

Disney Channel’s Fast Layne director Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull

By Randi Altman

London-based Hasraf “HaZ” Dulull is a man with a rich industry background. He started out in this business as a visual effects artist (The Dark Knight, Hellboy 2) and VFX supervisor (America: The Story of the US), and has expanded his resume in recent years to include producer, screenwriter and feature film director of his own projects (The Beyond, 2036 Origin Unknown).

HaZ (left) on set directing Disney’s Fast Layne.

Even more recently, he added television series director to that long list, thanks to his work on Disney Channel’s action-comedy miniseries Fast Layne, where he directed Episodes 1, 2, 7 and 8. He is currently developing a slate of feature and TV projects with his next film being a sci-fi/horror offering called Lunar, which is scheduled to start shooting later in the year.

Fast Layne focuses on a very bright 12-year-old girl named Layne and her eccentric neighbor, who find V.I.N., a self-driving and talking car in an abandoned shed. The car, the girls and a classmate with experience fixing cars embark on high-speed adventures while trying to figure out why V.I.N. was created, all the while tangling with bad guys and secret agents. You can watch Fast Layne on Sundays at 7:00pm ET/PT on Disney Channel.

We reached out to Dulull to find out more about establishing the look of the show, as well as his process, and how he uses his post background to inform his directing.

As the pilot director, what was your process in establishing the look for the show?
My process was very similar to how I worked on my feature films, since I come from a filmmaking-style that is very visually driven and hands-on. As a director, I would usually do lots of look development on my end anyway, which for Fast Layne involved creating style frames in Photoshop with direction notes and ideas. These eventually became a look bible for the show.

I worked closely with the Disney Channel’s development team and the showrunners Matt Dearborn, Tom Burkhard and Travis Braun (the creator of the show). We would discuss the ideas from the early style frames I had created and developed further, along with a set of rules of what the color palette should be, the graphics and even the style of framing with the key sequences.

By the end of the process, we firmly set the tone and mood of the show as having a saturated and punchy look, while feeling slick and cinematic with a lot of energy. Since we were shooting in Vancouver during the time of year that it gets overcast/grey very quickly, we made sure the art department had many colorful objects in the environment/sets to help — including the cast’s wardrobes.

How did you work with the DP and colorist? Who did the color, and do you know the tools they used?
We had a great DP — Neil Cervin and his team of camera ninjas! They are super-fast and so collaborative in pushing the shots further.

During the prep stage, I worked closely with Neil on the look of the show, and he was really into what we wanted to do something punchy, so he made sure we retained that throughout.

Our A camera was always the ARRI Alexa during the pilot shoot. We had a DIT, Jay Rego, who would quickly apply looks on the frames we had shot using DaVinci Resolve. During this on-set color process, we would see how far we could push it with the grade and what additional lighting we would need to achieve the look we were after. This really helped us nail the look very quickly and get it approved by the showrunners and the Disney Channel team on set before we continued shooting.

We then saved those looks as DPX frames along with CDLs (color decision lists) and sent those over to colorist Lionel Barton over at Vancouver’s OmniFilm Entertainment to work from in Blackmagic Resolve. This saved time in the grading process since that was done early during the shoot. Larry and his team at Omnifilm were taking the look we had set and pushing it further with each shot across all the episodes.

Colorist Lionel Barton during grading session.

Can you talk about the car sequences? They are fun!
On the first days of prepping the show, I cut a mood reel of car chase action scenes, making clear that I love well-designed car chases and that we need to give the kids that cinematic experience they get in movies. Plus, Travis came from a NASCAR racing family, so he backed this up.

We designed the car action scenes to be fun and energetic with cool camera angles — not violent and frenetic (like the Bourne films). We were not doing crazy camera shake and motion blur action scenes; this is slick and cool action — we want the kids to experience those key action moments and go “wow.”

You are known for directing your own feature films. What was it like to direct your first TV series for a studio as big as Disney Channel?
Firstly, I’m incredibly grateful for Disney Channel giving me the opportunity to be on this journey. I have to thank Rafael Garcia at Disney Channel, who lobbied hard for me early in the process.

The first thing I quickly picked up and made sure stayed in my mind is that feature film is a director’s medium, whereas TV is a writer’s medium. So with that in mind, I ensured I collaborated very closely with Matt, Tom, and Travis on everything. Those guys were such a bundle of joy to work with. They were continually pushing the show with additional writing, and they supported me and the other directors (Joe Menendez, Rachel Leiterman) on our episodes throughout, making sure we hit those essential comedy and drama moments they wanted for the show. In fact, I would be in the same car as Matt (some days with Tom) to the shoot location every morning and back to our hotel every evening, going through things on the script, the shoot, etc. — this was a very tight collaboration, and I loved it.

The big difference between the feature films I had done and this TV series is the sheer amount of people involved from an executive and creative level. We had the writing team/execs/showrunners, then we had the executives at the Disney Channel, and we also had the team from the production company Omnifilm.

Therefore, we all had to be in sync with the vision and decisions taken. So once a decision was made, it was tough to go back and retract, so that ensured we were all making the right decisions throughout. I have to say the Fast Layne team were all very collaborative and respectful to each other, which made the “network studio” experience a very pleasant and creative one.

You are also credited as creative consultant on all the episodes? What did that entail?
I fell into that role almost automatically after shooting my first block (Episodes 1 and 2). I think it’s due to my filmmaking nature — being so hands-on technically and creatively and having that know-how from my previous projects on creating high-concept content (which usually involves a lot of visual effects) on a tight budget and schedule.

I had also done a lot of work in advance regarding how we would shoot stuff fast to allow things to be taken further in VFX. The network wanted to have someone that knew the show intimately to oversee that during the post production stage. So once production wrapped, I flew back home to London and continued working on the show by reviewing dailies, cuts and VFX shots and providing notes and creative solutions and being on conference calls with Disney and Omnifilm.

What tools were used for review and approval?
I used Evernote to keep all my notes neat and organized, and we would use Aspera for transferring files securely while Pix was the primary platform for reviewing cuts and shots.

Most of the time I would provide my notes visually rather than writing long emails, so a screen grab of the shot and then lots of arrows and annotations. I was in this role (while doing other stuff) right up to the end of the show’s post, so at the time of answering these questions I just signed off on the last episode grade (Episode 8) last week. I am now officially off the show.

You mostly shoot on Alexa, can you talk about what else you used during production?
Yes, we shot on Alexa with a variety of lenses at 3K to allow us to pan and scan later for HD deliverable. We also used GoPro and DJI Osmo’s (4K) for V.I.N.’s POV, and some DJI Drone shots too.

The biggest camera tech toy we had on the show was the Russian Arm! (It didn’t help that I keep quoting Micheal Bay during the prep of the car chase scenes). So somehow the production team managed to get us a Russian Arm for the day, and what we achieved with that was phenomenal.

We got so much bang for our buck. The team operating it, along with the stunt driving team, worked on films like Deadpool 2, so there was a moment during second unit when we almost forgot this was a kids’ show because it had the energy of an action feature film.

Russian Arm

Stylistically, we always kept the camera moving, even during drama scenes — a slow move helped give perspective and depth. All the camera moves had to be slick; there was no handheld-style in this show.

For earlier scenes in Episode 1 with Layne, we used the idea of a single camera move/take, which was choreographed slickly and timed with precision. This was to reflect the perfect nature of Layne’s character being super-organized like a planner. Most of these camera moves were simply achieved with a dolly/track and slider. Later on in the the show, as Layne’s character breaks out of her comfort zone of being safe and organized, she begins to be more spontaneous, so the camera language reflected that too with more loose shots and whip pans.

You are a post/VFX guy at heart, how did that affect the way you directed Fast Layne?
Oh yes, it had a massive influence on the way I directed my episodes, but only from a technical side of things, not creatively in the way I worked with the actors.

With my VFX background, I had the instinct to be sensible with things, such as how to frame the shots to make VFX life smoother, where to stage my actors to avoid them crossing over tracing markers (to save money on paint-outs) and, of course, to use minimal green/blue screen for the car scenes.

I knew the spill coming from the greenscreens would be a nightmare in VFX, so to avoid that as much as I could, we shot driving plates and then used a lot of rear/side projections playing them back.

Previs

The decision to go that route was partly based on my experience as a compositor back in the day, crying in the late hours de-spilling greenscreen on reflection and dealing with horrible hair mattes. The only time we shot greenscreen was for scenes where the camera was moving around areas we didn’t have screen projection space for. We did shoot car greenscreen for some generic interior plates to allow us to do things later in post if we needed to create an insert shot with a new background.

Did you use previs?
As you know from our conversations about my previous projects, I love previs and find that previs can save so much money later on in production if used right.

So the car chase sequences, along with a big action scene in the series finale, had to be prevised, mainly because we had to end big but only had limited time to shoot. The previs was also instrumental with getting first VFX budgets in for the sequences and helping the 1st AD create the schedule.

Vancouver’s Atmosphere VFX was kind enough to let me come in and work closely with one of the previs artists to map out these key scenes in 3D, while I also did some previs myself using the assets they generated for me. The previs also dictated what lens we needed and how much real estate we needed on the location.

Being a former VFX supervisor certainly helped when communicating with the show’s on-set VFX supervisors Andrew Karr and Greg Behrens. We had a shorthand with each other, which sped things up massively on set with decisions made quickly regarding shooting plates to work with VFX later.

Before and After

On set I would show the actors, via mockups and previs on my iPad, what was going to happen, why I wanted them to be staged in a certain way, and why they should look at this reference, etc. So I think that gave the actors (both the kids and adults) confidence in the scenes that involved VFX.

My personal approach to VFX is that it’s part of the arsenal of tools required to tell the story and, if possible, its best used in combination with the other crafts as opposed to just relying on it solely to achieve things.

Atmosphere created the visual effects?
Yes. I have been a fan of their work from the first season of The Expanse. They were the only main VFX house on the show and handled the CG V.I.N. shots, steering wheel transformation, and V.I.N.’s front grill, as well as other shots involving digital cloth, a robotic arm and a helicopter that appears in later episodes.

We also had a team of internal VFX artists (Mike Jackson and Richard Mintak) working for Omnifilm who were on throughout the post schedule. They handled the smaller VFX, compositing and graphics type shots, such as the windshield graphics, V.I.N.’s internal visual screen and other screen graphics as well as Layne’s Alonzo watch graphics.

How many VFX in total?
There were 1,197 VFX shots delivered, with Atmosphere VFX providing the main bulk of around 600, while the rest were graphics VFX shots done by our internal VFX team at Omnifilm.

Most of the visual effects involving CGI in the show involved V.I.N. doing cool things and his front grill communicating his emotion.

During my pitch for getting the job, I referenced my film 2036 Origin Unknown as an example of visual communication I had explored when it came to AI and characters.

From that we explored further and knew we wanted something with personality, but not with a face. We were very clear at the start that this was not going to be cartoony or gimmicky; it had to feel technologically cool, yet fresh and unique. We didn’t want to have the typical LED screen displaying graphics or emoji. Instead, we went for something resembling a pushpin cushion to give it a little organic touch — it showing that this was advanced tech, but used simple arrangements of pins moving in and out to create the shape of the eyes to communicate emotion.

It was important we went with a visual approach, which was simple to communicate with our core audience, for V.I.N. to come across visually as a personality with comedy beats. I remember being in my hotel room, drawing up emotive sketches on paper to see how simple we could get V.I.N. to be and then emailing them across to the writers for their thoughts.

Atmosphere spent some time developing R&D in Maya and Python scripting to create a system that could feed off the sound files to help generate the animation of the pins. The passes were rendered out of Maya and Vray and then composited with the final look established in Foundry Nuke.

To ensure we didn’t end up with a show where all the shots needed VFX, V.I.N.’s emotive visuals on the front grill can pop on and off when required. That meant that during the car chase sequences, V.I.N.’s face would only pop up when needed (like when it was angry as it was being chased or to show its competitive face during a race). Having this rule in place allowed us to stick with our budget and schedule as closely as possible without extreme overages (which tends to happen after editorial).

For the scenes that involved a CGI V.I.N., we shot the live-action plates with a special buggy developed exclusively for the show. This allowed our stunt driver to do cool car maneuvers and tricks, while also providing a body frame that had lots of space for rigging cameras to capturing the HDRI of the environment. It also had tracking markers across it to allow for full object tracking. (See before and after image of the buddy and CGI VIN).

The other big bulk of the VFX was all the UI/heads up display graphics on V.I.N.’s windshield, which was the way the car’s system displayed information. During Transformed mode, the windshield became a navigation system to help support Layne. It couldn’t be too crazy since we were dealing with pop-up windows overlaid so we can still see the driving action outside.

Most of those graphics were done by our internal team at Omnifilm, by graphic designers and compositors using Adobe After Effects with render passes such as wireframes of V.I.N. provided by Atmosphere. We wanted to show that the car was technologically cool without having to use any tech speak in the script. So we researched a lot into what automated cars are doing and what the developments are for the future and depicted this in the show.

Before and After

Can you provide an example?
In Episode 1, when the windshield presents a trajectory of the jump across the construction bridge, a wireframe of the bridge based on its LIDAR scan capabilities was shown as a safe jump option. Another example was during the first big motorway chase sequence. V.I.N. recognized the bad guys chasing them in the SUV, so we featured facial recognition tracking technology to show how V.I.N. was able to read their vitals from this scan as being hostile.

We used this same grounded-tech approach to create the POV of the car, using the graphics style we had created for the windshield, to show what V.I.N. was seeing and thinking and that it was essentially a sentient being. This also helped, editorially, to mix things up visually during the drama scenes inside the car.

The show was shot in Vancouver, what was that like?
I love Vancouver!! There is such a buzz in that city, and that’s because you can feel the filmmaking vibe every day, due to the fact there were like 30 other shows happening at the same time we were shooting Fast Layne! I can’t wait to go back and shoot there again.


Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years. 

Arraiy 4.11.19

Posting director Darren Lynn Bousman’s horror film, St. Agatha

Atlanta’s Moonshine Post helped create a total post production pipeline — from dailies to finishing — for the film St. Agatha, directed by Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II, Saw III, Saw IV, Repo the Genetic Opera). 

The project, from producers Seth and Sara Michaels, was co-edited by Moonshine’s Gerhardt Slawitschka and Patrick Perry and colored by Moonshine’s John Peterson.

St. Agatha is a horror film that shot in the town of Madison, Georgia. “The house we needed for the convent was perfect, as the area was one of the few places that had not burned down during the Civil War,” explains Seth Michaels. “It was our first time shooting in Atlanta, and the number one reason was because of the tax incentive. But we also knew Georgia had an infrastructure that could handle our production.”

What the producers didn’t know during production was that Moonshine Post could handle all aspects of post, and were initially brought in only for dailies. With the opportunity to do a producer’s cut, they returned to Moonshine Post.

Time and budget dictated everything, and Moonshine Post was able to offer two editors working in tandem to edit a final cut. “Why not cut in collaboration?” suggested Drew Sawyer, founder of Moonshine Post and executive producer. “It will cut the time in half, and you can explore different ideas faster.”

“We quite literally split the movie in half,” reports Perry, who, along with Slawitschka, cut on Adobe Premiere “It’s a 90-minute film, and there was a clear break. It’s a little unusual, I will admit, but almost always when we are working on something, we don’t have a lot of time, so splitting it in half works.”

Patrick Perry

Gerhardt Slawitschka

“Since it was a producer’s cut, when it came to us it was in Premiere, and it didn’t make sense to switch over to Avid,” adds Slawitschka. “Patrick and I can use both interchangeably, but prefer Premiere; it offers a lot of flexibility.”

“The editors, Patrick and Gerhardt, were great,” says Sara Michaels. “They watched every single second of footage we had, so when we recut the movie, they knew exactly what we had and how to use it.”

“We have the same sensibilities,” explains Gerhardt. “On long-form projects we take a feature in tandem, maybe split it in half or in reels. Or, on a TV series, each of us take a few episodes, compare notes, and arrive at a ‘group mind,’ which is our language of how a project is working. On St. Agatha, Patrick and I took a bit of a risk and generated a four-page document of proposed thoughts and changes. Some very macro, some very micro.”

Colorist John Peterson, a partner at Moonshine Post, worked closely with the director on final color using Blackmagic’s Resolve. “From day one, the first looks we got from camera raw were beautiful.” Typically, projects shot in Atlanta ship back to a post house in a bigger city, “and maybe you see it and maybe you don’t. This one became a local win, we processed dailies, and it came back to us for a chance to finish it here,” he says.

Peterson liked working directly with the director on this film. “I enjoyed having him in session because he’s an artist. He knew what he was looking for. On the flashbacks, we played with a variety of looks to define which one we liked. We added a certain amount of film grain and stylistically for some scenes, we used heavy vignetting, and heavy keys with isolation windows. Darren is a director, but he also knows the terminology, which gave me the opportunity to take his words and put them on the screen for him. At the end of the week, we had a successful film.”

John Peterson

The recent expansion of Moonshine Post, which included a partnership with the audio company Bare Knuckles Creative and a visual effects company Crafty Apes, “was necessary, so we could take on the kind of movies and series we wanted to work with,” explains Sawyer. “But we were very careful about what we took and how we expanded.”

They recently secured two AMC series, along with projects from Netflix. “We are not trying to do all the post in town, but we want to foster and grow the post production scene here so that we can continue to win people’s trust and solidify the Atlanta market,” he says.

Uncork’d Entertainment’s St. Agatha was in theaters and became available on-demand starting February 8. Look for it on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, Fandango Now, Xbox, Dish Network and local cable providers.


Free Solo: The filmmakers behind the Oscar-winning documentary

By Iain Blair

Do you suffer from vertigo? Are you deathly afraid of heights? Does the thought of hanging by your fingertips over the void make you feel like throwing up? Then the new, nail-biting climbing film Free Solo, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary feature, might not be for you.

But if you enjoy an edge-of-your-seat thriller that allows you — thanks to truly awesome cinematography — to virtually “free solo” (climb a rock face without any safety gear) from the comfort of your own armchair, then you should rush to see this inspiring portrait of an athlete who challenges both his body and his beliefs on a quest to triumph over the impossible.

Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi

Made by the award-winning husband-and-wife team of documentary filmmakers E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (a renowned photographer and mountaineer), it follows daredevil climber Alex Honnold as he prepares to tackle the greatest challenge of his career: a death-defying ascent of Yosemite’s famous 3,200-foot sheer rock face El Capitan — without any ropes, safety harness or assistance in a “free solo” climb. His meticulous preparation is complicated by his falling in love with a new girlfriend, Sanni.

I spoke with the filmmaking couple, whose credits include the acclaimed 2015 climbing epic Meru, about making the Nat Geo film, their love of post, and the Oscars.

Congratulations on your Oscar win. How important are Oscars to a film like this?
E. Chai Vasarhelyi (ECV): Incredibly important, as they bring so much attention to it and get it to a far wider audience than it might otherwise get. But, of course, we didn’t make this with awards in mind. You can’t think like that when you’re doing it, but we’re so grateful for the nomination.

This is not your typical climbing movie. Jimmy, you’re also an elite climber. What drives someone to do this, and what sort of film did you set out to make?
Jimmy Chin (JC): I think it’s the same thing as what makes us want to go to the moon, or why someone pushes themselves to the edge for their calling or passion: to see how far you can take it. That’s at the heart of this and the sort of film we set out to make, and what’s amazing about Alex and his story is just how far he’s come.

He was this very shy, sort of awkward kid who was scared of all kinds of things, and through his determination to face all his fears — whether it was simply hugging people or his dislike of vegetables — he’s gone through this huge transformation. Climbing like this was, I think, ultimately easier for him to conquer than some other stuff in his life. So we wanted to capture all of that, but also all the raw emotional moments that really engage an audience. It’s a film about this amazing climb, but it’s not just a climbing movie. That’s how we approached it.

Alex is also a friend of yours. How do you film a potentially fatal climb like this without exploiting it?
ECV: It was a big ethical question, even if a more extreme case of it than comes with every documentary. Did we even want to make this film? And, if so, how did we honor Alex and what he was trying to do without making it at all sensational. There are so many different ways to tell a story, and Alex had to trust us. Then there’s that existential ethical question at the center of it all — is he more likely to fall because we’re there filming it? That’s something we really had to wrestle with.

Alex thought more about his own mortality than anyone else, and he chooses every day to live a certain way and we were going to do everything in our power to mitigate the risk. So it was all about doing justice to the story and respecting Alex and every decision he makes, including the way he prepared so carefully for the climb.

How tough was the shoot?
ECV: It was very hard, even though we had a big team of elite climbers who were also great cameramen and trained for two years to do this.

JC: We had over 30 people on El Cap alone, including four cameramen on the wall, including myself, and most of us were very up high — around 2,000 feet. We used some very long lens cameras on the ground, as well as some remote rigs and drones and other equipment. But we knew that we were in situations where a simple mistake could be catastrophic. There were a lot of potential hazards, and the big thing for the crew was to never get distracted, which is so easy when you’re watching someone free solo up 3,000 feet in front of you. It was grueling and exhausting for everyone involved — super-intense, both physically and mentally. It’s hard to overstate what everyone went through to make this film.

Talk about re-teaming with Meru editor Bob Eisenhardt, who just won the ACE Eddie for this film. He told me it took over a year to edit.
ECV: It actually took over 18 months, partly because we had so much footage to look at and sort through. But I don’t think the sheer volume of footage was the main editing challenge. We were attracted to his story because there’s so much more to it than just the climb itself, and while we were all so prepared for that, we never anticipated him and Sanni falling in love. When that happened, you have to just go with it. We spent a lot of time trying stuff and figuring out how to marry that with the climb so that it played authentically to people very familiar with climbing as well as to people like me, who aren’t. It was all about a negotiation.

Where did you post?
ECV: All in New York, at our own post place called Little Monster Films, and then we did our sound work and mixing at Soundtrack with re-recording mixer Tommy Fleischman, and we also did some ADR work at C5 Inc.

Do you like the post process?
ECV: We love it, because you finally start pulling in all the layers — like the music and sound and VFX — and you see the film come to life and change as you go along. We also had the luxury of a long post schedule to play around with the material, and it’s so much fun.

Obviously, sound is very important, especially when Alex was out of range of wireless mics.
ECV: Having made a few films, we know just how important the sound is and we had a great sound recordist in the field and a great sound team. When you don’t climb with ropes, all the sounds are very subtle.

What VFX were involved?
JC: One of the big ones was trying to give you a sense of El Cap’s true scale. It’s so hard to get across just how big it is. We tried a lot of things and finally ended up getting access to Google Earth high-res satellite imagery, and we were able to 3D map that and then build out those moving, contextual shots, and all that stuff was done by Big Star.

Where did you do the DI, and how important was it to you?
JC: We did the DI at Company 3 with Stefan Sonnenfeld. It was very important as one of the big challenges was that we shot using a lot of different cameras, and so we had to work to get a consistent look and feel the whole way through, so you don’t pull people out of it at key moments. But we also didn’t want to create a stylized look to the footage. We wanted to keep it fairly naturalistic, and we worked hard on that.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
ECV: Yes, as we’d planned it so carefully — how to treat the climb, how you get to know Alex. This whole project took about four years, from start to finish. But Sanni was the big surprise.

What’s your view of Alex today?
JC: He’s an incredible person who did something no one else has ever done. It’s still hard to comprehend just how amazing this feat was.

What’s next? Another climbing film?
ECV: (Laughs) No. No more climbing for a while. It’s a documentary about conservation.


Cold War’s Oscar-nominated director Pawel Pawlikowski

By Iain Blair

Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski is a BAFTA-winning writer and director whose film Ida won the 2015 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Pawlikowski, who left Poland at age 14 and currently resides in the UK, is Oscar nominated again — as Best Director for his latest film, Cold War. Also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, Cold War earned cinematographer Lukasz Zal an Oscar nomination, as well as an ASC Award win.

Pawel Pawlikowski                            Credit: Magda Wunsche and Aga Samsel

Cold War traces the passionate love story between Wiktor and Zula, a couple who meet in the ruins of post-war Poland. With vastly different backgrounds and temperaments, they are fatefully mismatched and yet condemned to each other. Set against the background of the Cold War in 1950s Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia and Paris, it’s the tale of a couple separated by politics, character flaws and unfortunate twists of fate — an impossible love story in impossible times.

I spoke with Pawlikowski, whose credits include The Woman in the Fifth, which starred Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas, about making the film, the Oscars and his workflow.

How surprised are you by the Oscar nominations, including the one for Best Director?
I’m pleasantly surprised as it’s very unusual for a small film like this — and it’s in B&W — to cut through all the noise of the big films, especially as it’s an American competition and there’s so much money and PR involved.

Your Ida cinematographer Lukasz Zal also got an Oscar nomination for his beautiful B&W work. It’s interesting that Roma is also semi-autobiographical and in B&W.
I’m so happy for him, and yes, it is a bit of a coincidence. Someone told me that having two foreign-language film directors both nominated in the same year has only happened once before, and I feel we were both trying to reconnect with the past through something personal and timeless. But they’re very different films and very different in their use of B&W. In Roma you can see everything, it’s all in focus and lit very evenly, while ours is far more contrast-y, shot with a lot of very different lenses — some very wide, some very long.

You won the Oscar for Ida. How important are the Oscars to a film like this?
Very, I think. This was made totally as we wanted. There wasn’t an ounce of compromise, and it’s not formulaic, yet it’s getting all this attention. This, of course, means a wider audience — and that’s so important when there’s so much stuff out there vying for attention. It’s very encouraging.

What sort of film did you set out to make, as the story is so elliptical and leaves a lot unsaid?
That’s true, and I think it’s a great pleasure for audiences to work things out for themselves, and to not spell every single thing out. When you work by suggestion, I think it stays in your imagination much longer, and leaving certain types of gaps in the narrative makes the audience fill them in with their own imagination and own experience of life. As a film lover and audience member myself, I feel that approach lets you enter the space of a film much more, and it stays with you long after you’ve left the cinema. When a film ties up every loose end and crosses every “T” and dots every “I” you tend to forget it quite quickly, and I think not showing everything is the essence of art.

Is it true that the two main characters of Wiktor and Zula are based on your own parents?
Yes, but very loosely. They have the same names and share a lot of the same traits. They had a very tempestuous, complicated relationship — they couldn’t live with each other and couldn’t live without each other. That was the starting point, but then it took on its own life, like all films do.

The film looks very beautiful in B&W, but I heard you originally planned to shoot it in color?
No. Not at all. It’s been like this Chinese whisper, where people got it all wrong. When the DP and I first started discussing it, we immediately knew it’d be a B&W film for this world, this time period, this story, especially as Poland wasn’t very colorful back then. So whatever colors we could have come up with would have been so arbitrary anyway. And we knew it’d be very high contrast and very dramatic. Lukasz did say, “Maybe we shouldn’t do two films in a row in B&W,” but we never seriously considered color. If it had been set in the ‘70s or ‘80s I would have shot it in color, but B&W was just visually perfect for this.

Where did you post?
All in Poland, at various places in Warsaw, and it took over six months. It was very tricky and very hard to get it right because we had a lot of greenscreen work, and it wasn’t straightforward. People would say, “That’s good enough,” but it wasn’t for me, and I kept pushing and pushing to get it all as nearly perfect as we could. That was quite nerve-wracking.

Do you like the post process?
Very much, and I especially love the editing and the grading. I’m basically an editor in my approach to filmmaking, and I usually do all the editing while I shoot, so by the time we get to post it’s practically all edited.

Talk about editing with Jaroslaw Kaminski, who cut Ida for you. What were the big editing challenges?
We sit down after the shoot and go through it all, but there’s not that much to tweak because of the coverage. I like to do one shot from one angle, with a simple, square composition, but I do quite a lot of takes, so it’s more about finding the best one, and he’s very used to the way I work.

This spans some 15 years, and all period films use some VFX. What was involved?
Quite a lot, like the whole transition in Berlin when he crosses the border. We don’t have all the ruins, so we had to use enormous greenscreens and VFX. West Berlin is far brighter and more colorful, which is both symbolic and also realistic. We shot all the Paris interiors in Poland, so everything that happens outside the windows is greenscreen, and that was very hard to get right. I didn’t want it to feel like it was done in post. We scoured Poland for locations, so we could use real elements to build on with the VFX, and the story also takes place in Split, Yugoslavia, so the level of realism had to be very high.

Talk about the importance of sound and music.
It was so important, and it took a long time to do as it’s really a silent movie when there’s no music, and as it’s not an action film, it was really critical that we didn’t overdo it or under-do it. I took a very long time working with my sound mixer — over four months. Before we shot, I went around Poland with my casting director to lots of folk music festivals and selected various faces, voices and tunes for the first part of the film. That took over half a year. Then I chose three tunes performed by Mazowsze, a real ensemble founded after the war and still performing today. A tune could be used in different ways — as a simple folk song at the start of the film, but then also later as a haunting jazz number in the Paris scenes. For me, all this was like the glue holding it all together. Then I chose a lot of other music, like the Russian piece, Gershwin and also a song like “Rock Around The Clock,” which really drives a wedge between Wiktor and Zula. The film ends with Bach, which gives it a whole different feel and perspective.

The grading must have also been very important for the look?
Yes. Michal Herman was the colorist and we spent a long time getting the contrast and grain just right. I love that process.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
It did. It’s more or less everything I felt and imagined about my parents and their story, even though it’s a work of fiction.


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.


Big Block adds live-action director Rylee Jean Ebsen

LA’s Big Block, part design studio, part production studio and part post house, has added live-action commercial director Rylee Jean Ebsen. As an early Snapchat employee and its most recent director of creative media, Ebsen brings experience producing alternative content to Big Block, including AR, VR, AI, 360-video, vertical video and live-streaming across social and broadcast.

Ebsen ran Snapchat’s in-house creative agency for seven years, hiring and leading a team of 15 while reporting directly to CEO Evan Spiegel. Ebsen debuted Snap’s first vertical original content series on the Discover Platform, co-directed Snap’s very first broadcast TV spot and earned an official patent for her work creating Snapchat’s AR Geofilters. Ebsen was the lead creative artist behind the debuts of the Jeff Koons augmented reality project, Snappables, World Lenses, Custom Stories and Spectacles.

Rylee Ebsen on set.

“What drew me to Big Block is that they weren’t just another production company making commercials, they’re a go-to partner for brands and agencies to turn to for innovative ideas, unique activations and incredible artistic interpretations,” she says.

Big Block’s involvement with “Free the Bid” was another draw for Ebsen, as she’s an active member and passionate about encouraging other female creatives. She’s also an executive member of Women in Film and has spoken at USC’s “Own It” women’s leadership summit and “It’s Our Turn,” Brentwood School’s Young Women’s Conference.

At only 28 years old, she has already spent over 1,200 hours directing on set with equipment ranging from vertical rigs to high-end Alexa cameras. Ebsen has storytelling in her blood, growing up as the granddaughter of actor Buddy Ebsen and advertising creative director Stan Freberg, and later graduating from the NYU Tisch School of the Arts.


Beautiful Boy director Felix Van Groeningen

By Iain Blair

Belgian filmmaker Felix Van Groeningen — director of Amazon’s Beautiful Boy — may not be a household name in America, yet, but among cineastes he’s already a force to be reckoned with. His last film, Belgica, premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, where he won the Directing Award (Dramatic World Cinema). His The Broken Circle Breakdown earned a 2014 Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film and a César for Best Foreign Film.

L-R: Felix van Groeningen and Timothée Chalamet on set.

For his first English language film, Van Groeningen jumped right into the deep end when he took on Beautiful Boy, a harrowing family drama about drug addiction. Based on two memoirs — one from journalist David Sheff (Steve Carell) and one from his son, Nic (Timothée Chalamet) — it unsparingly chronicles the repeated relapses and the harsh reality that addiction is a disease that does not discriminate and can hit any family at any time.

To tell the story, Van Groeningen reunited with his longtime collaborators, cinematographer Ruben Impens and editor Nico Leunen. It marks their fifth film with the director.

I spoke with Van Groeningen about making the film and his process.

Why did you choose this for your first English language film?
It just sort of happened. I’d been thinking about making an English language film for quite a while but took my time in choosing the right project. After The Broken Circle Breakdown got an Oscar nomination, I got a lot of offers but never found the right one. I read some scripts that were very good, but I always asked myself, ‘Am I the best director for this?’ And I never felt I was, until  Beautiful Boy.

I read both books and immediately fell in love with the family. I could really relate to the father figure and to Nic, and all their struggles. It was also a big plus that Plan B — Brad Pitt’s company with producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, who did Moonlight and 12 Years a Slave — would be producing it. So it all came together.

So it all resonated with you?
It had a lot of elements and themes that really interest me, such as the passage of time, family dynamics and loss, as well as the illusion that we can control things. I’d explored these in my previous films, and I’d also dealt with addiction and substance abuse. Plus, the whole father-son element was also something I could really relate to — I lost my father when I was in my ‘20s, and in a way he still lives on in me through my movies.

So even though my family was very different, I knew this was the perfect project for me to spend several years on, which is what it took, since this was an epic journey. It’s a father trying to understand his son, and I knew right away it would be a big challenge. I also knew it would take a lot of work to combine the two books into one story and one film. I learned just how easy it is to relapse and about the whole cycle of shame that pulls you down.

Do you feel there’s far more responsibility as a filmmaker when a film is based on real people and real events?
I do, and I don’t. I really love the Sheffs, and that first love is genuine and everything comes from that. I met them very early on and really liked them, and they got involved and it happened very organically. They were both very open and honest and let me into their lives. We became friends, they met with the actors and really trusted me. But I had to make this film my own. This is my sixth film, and I’ve learned that at some point you always have to betray the original story and material in order to get a grip on it. You can’t be afraid of that.

Obviously, casting the right lead actors was crucial. What did Timothee and Steve bring to the roles?
Steve has this great Everyman relatability and sincerity, and while people tend to see him mainly as a comedic actor, he has this huge range. This role needed all that — from rage to despair to laughter. And Timothee is so charming and open, and you needed that so you could follow him on this very dark journey. He was always true to the character.

Where did you shoot?
We did some of the exteriors in the real locations in Northern California, along with bits in LA. We shot around Marin County and San Francisco, and at the real beach where David and Nic surfed, as well in and around Inverness, where they lived. And then we used sets for the interiors and shot them on stages in Hollywood. I don’t usually like to shoot on stages, but it worked out really well as we designed the rooms so we could take them apart and then put them back together in different ways.

Where did you post?
All in LA at The Post Group Production Suites. We did all the editing there. Nico was busy on another project when we began, so we started with another editor on location but not on set. It makes me feel a little insecure to look at what I’ve done, as I don’t do reshoots, and I like to go with my gut.  Nico came on board a bit later.

Do you like the post process?
I love post, but it’s also really the hardest part of any project since it’s where it all comes together. There’s always a phase where you’re really happy and super-excited about it, and then there’s always a phase where you panic and start re-thinking things and feeling that nothing is working. You have to let go. For years you’ve dreamed about what the movie could be, and now you have to realize, “This is it.” That’s scary.

As they say, you make a movie three times, and I really embrace post and all that goes with it, but sometimes you just can’t let go and you’re just too close to the movie. This is when you have to step back and leave for a week or two, then come back.

What were the big editing challenges?
You have to find the right balance between the two stories and points of view, and that was the big one — and in the script too. How long do you spend with each character separately? How much time together? It was tricky, finding the right rhythm and the balance.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
They’re both vital. Nico lays stuff out and helps me shape ideas, and then we finish it all together with the sound editor and sound designer Elmo Weber, and the mixers. Elmo and the sound effects editor Marc Glassman recorded a lot of material at all the locations — things like insects and birds and the wind in the trees and the sound of waves, so it was very naturalistic and very detailed.

We actually had a whole score for the film, but the songs were always so important to the story and a key part of the movie, as David and Nic loved music, but the score just wasn’t working. So Nico suggested having no score and using songs instead, and that worked far better. So we ended up using a mix of weird electronic music, sort of half-way between sound design and music. The songs were great, like the scene where Steve is singing to Nic and it breaks away into John Lennon singing. We also used tracks by Nirvana, Neil Young and Icelandic rockers Sigur Rós.

Felix van Groeningen and Steve Carell on set.

Were there any VFX?
Not many. Shade VFX did them, and it was mainly clean up. I really don’t know much about VFX since I’m far more interested in actors.

Where did you do the DI?
At Efilm with colorist Tim Stipan, who’s fantastic. I love the DI. I was there with Tim and our DP Ruben. It’s so fascinating to see your film get to the next level, and being able to refine the look.

Did it turn out the way you hoped?
It did. It’s been a long journey and I still need time to digest it.

What’s next?
I’ve got several projects I’m developing but I’ll take my time. I just became a father and I like to focus on one thing at a time.


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.


BlacKkKlansman director Spike Lee

By Iain Blair

Spike Lee has been on a roll recently. Last time we sat down for a talk, he’d just finished Chi-Raq, an impassioned rap reworking of Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” which was set against a backdrop of Chicago gang violence. Since then, he’s directed various TV, documentary and video projects. And now his latest film BlacKkKlansman has been nominated for a host of Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing,  Best Original Score and Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Adam Driver).

Set in the early 1970s, the unlikely-but-true story details the exploits of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Determined to make a name for himself, Stallworth sets out on a dangerous mission: infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan. The young detective soon recruits a more seasoned colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), into the undercover investigation. Together, they team up to take down the extremist hate group as the organization aims to sanitize its violent rhetoric to appeal to the mainstream. The film also stars Topher Grace as David Duke.

Behind the scenes, Lee reteamed with co-writer Kevin Willmott, longtime editor Barry Alexander Brown and composer Terence Blanchard, along with up-and-coming DP Chayse Irvin. I spoke with the always-entertaining Lee, who first burst onto the scene back in 1986 with She’s Gotta Have It, about making the film, his workflow and the Oscars.

Is it true Jordan Peele turned you onto this story?
Yeah, he called me out of the blue and gave me possibly the greatest six-word pitch in film history — “Black man infiltrates Ku Klux Klan.” I couldn’t resist it, not with that pitch.

Didn’t you think, “Wait, this is all too unbelievable, too Hollywood?”
Well, my first question was, “Is this actually true? Or is it a Dave Chappelle skit?” Jordan assured me it’s a true story and that Ron wrote a book about it. He sent me a script, and that’s where we began, but Kevin Willmott and I then totally rewrote it so we could include all the stuff like Charlottesville at the end.

Iain Blair and Spike Lee

Did you immediately decide to juxtapose the story’s period racial hatred with all the ripped-from-the-headlines news footage?
Pretty much, as the Charlottesville rally happened August 11, 2017 and we didn’t start shooting this until mid-September, so we could include all that. And then there was the terrible synagogue massacre, and all the pipe bombs. Hate crimes are really skyrocketing under this president.

Fair to say, it’s not just a film about America, though, but about what’s happening everywhere — the rise of neo-Nazism, racism, xenophobia and so on in Europe and other places?
I’m so glad you said that, as I’ve had to correct several people who want to just focus on America, as if this is just happening here. No, no, no! Look at the recent presidential elections in Brazil. This guy — oh my God! This is a global phenomenon, and the common denominator is fear. You fire up your base with fear tactics, and pinpoint your enemy — the bogeyman, the scapegoat — and today that is immigrants.

What were the main challenges in pulling it all together?
Any time you do a film, it’s so hard and challenging. I’ve been doing this for decades now, and it ain’t getting any easier. You have to tell the story the best way you can, given the time and money you have, and it has to be a team effort. I had a great team with me, and any time you do a period piece you have added challenges to get it looking right.

You assembled a great cast. What did John David Washington and Adam Driver bring to the main roles?
They brought the weight, the hammer! They had to do their thing and bring their characters head-to-head, so it’s like a great heavyweight fight, with neither one backing down. It’s like Inside Man with Denzel and Clive Owen.

It’s the first time you’ve worked with the Canadian DP Chayse Irvin, who mainly shot shorts before this. Can you talk about how you collaborated with him?
He’s young and innovative, and he shot a lot of Beyonce’s Lemonade long-form video. What we wanted to do was shoot on film, not digital. I talked about all the ‘70s films I grew up with, like French Connection and Dog Day Afternoon. So that was the look I was after. It had to match the period, but not be too nostalgic. While we wanted to make a period film, I also wanted it to feel and look contemporary, and really connect that era with the world we live in now. He really nailed it. Then my great editor, Barry Alexander Brown, came up with all the split-screen stuff, which is also very ‘70s and really captured that era.

How tough was the shoot?
Every shoot’s tough. It’s part of the job. But I love shooting, and we used a mix of practical locations and sets in Brooklyn and other places that doubled for Colorado Springs.

Where did you post?
Same as always, in Brooklyn, at my 40 Acres and a Mule office.

Do you like the post process?
I love it, because post is when you finally sit down and actually make your film. It’s a lot more relaxing than the shoot — and a lot of it is just me and the editor and the Avid. You’re shaping and molding it and finding your way, cutting and adding stuff, flopping scenes, and it never really follows the shooting script. It becomes its own thing in post.

Talk about editing with Barry Alexander Brown, the Brit who’s cut so many of your films. What were the big editing challenges?
The big one was finding the right balance between the humor and the very serious subject matter. They’re two very different tones, and then the humor comes from the premise, which is absurd in itself. It’s organic to the characters and the situations.

Talk about the importance of sound and music, and Terence Blanchard’s spare score that blends funk with classical.
He’s done a lot of my films, and has never been nominated for an Oscar — and he should have been. He’s a truly great composer, trumpeter and bandleader, and a big part of what I do in post. I try to give him some pointers that aren’t restrictive, and then let him do his thing. I always put as much as emphasis on sound and music as I do on the acting, editing and cinematography. It’s hugely important, and once we have the score, we have a film.

I had a great sound team. Phil Stockton, who began with me back on School Daze, was the sound designer. David Boulton, Mike Russo and Howard London did the ADR mix, and my longtime mixer Tommy Fleischman was on it. We did it all at C5 in New York. We spent a long time on the mix, building it all up.

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
At Company 3 with colorist Tom Poole, who’s so good. It’s very important but I’m in and out, as I know Tom and the DP are going to get the look I want.

Spike Lee on set.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
Here’s the thing. You try to do the best you can, and I can’t predict what the reaction will be. I made the film I wanted to make, and then I put it out in the world. It’s all about timing. This was made at the right time and was made with a lot of urgency. It’s a crazy world and it’s getting crazier by the minute.

How important are industry awards and nomination to you? 
They’re very important in that they bring more attention, more awareness to a film like this. One of the blessings from the strong critical response to this has been a resurgence in looking at my earlier films again, some of which may have been overlooked, like Bamboozled and Summer of Sam.

Do you see progress in Hollywood in terms of diversity and inclusion?
There’s been movement, maybe not as fast as I’d like, but it’s slowly happening, so that’s good.

What’s next?
We just finished the second season of She’s Gotta Have It for Netflix, and I have some movie things cooking. I’m pretty busy.


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.


Editor Wyatt Smith talks Mary Poppins Returns, Marvel Universe

By Amy Leland

Wyatt Smith’s career as an editor is the kind that makes for a great story. His unintended path began with an unusual opportunity to work with Mariah Carey and a chance meeting with director Rob Marshall. He has since collaborated on big musicals and action films with Marshall, which opened the door to superhero movies. His latest project — in which he was reunited with Marshall — saw him editing a big musical with a title character who is, in her own Disney way, also a superhero.

Smith’s resume is impressive: Doctor Strange, Into the Woods, 300: Rise of an Empire, Thor: The Dark World, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. When I had a chance to talk with him about Mary Poppins Returns, I first had to ask him how his fascinating journey began.

Wyatt Smith at the Mary Poppins Returns premiere.

Can you talk about what led you to editing?
Some things just happen unexpectedly. Opportunities arise and you just have to hear the knock and not be afraid to open the door. When they were building the now-closed Sony Music Studios in New York City, I knew a lot about computers. Avid was first coming in, and there were all these video engineers who weren’t as savvy with Macs and things like that because they were used to linear, old-school tape editing. I worked in the maintenance department at the studio, servicing online editing suites, as well as setting up their first Avid Media Composer and giving people some tutorials on how to use that.

Then a very odd circumstance came up — they were working on a Mariah Carey concert video and needed an additional editor to work at her house at night (she was working during the day with another editor). My father is in the music business and had ties to Mariah — we had met before — so they thought it would be a comfortable situation. It came out of nowhere, and while I certainly knew, technically, how to edit, creatively I had no idea.

That was my first opportunity to edit, and I never went back to anything else. That was the day. That was it. I started to edit music videos and concerts and little music documentaries. Years and years later that led me to work with Rob Marshall on a music project.

The Tony Bennett American Classic special?
Exactly. I had known the Bennett family and worked with them since Tony Bennett’s “Unplugged.” When Rob was brought on to direct an NBC special celebrating Tony’s career, he wanted to bring his whole film team with him, but the TV network and the Bennett family wanted somebody who knew the music world, and that style of deadline, which is quite different from film.

I was brought in to interview with Rob, and we had a wonderful experience making that show. When it was done, he said, “Next time I make a film, I want you to come along.” To be completely honest, I didn’t believe him. I thought it was very kind of him, and he is a very nice man, but I was like, yeah, sure. In 2008, I think it was the Friday before they started shooting Nine, he called and said, “You gotta get to London.” I immediately quit my job and got on a plane.

I’m guessing the music world was a heavy influence on you, but were you drawn toward movies as well?
I have always been a movie junkie. At an early age, I saw a lot of the big epics, including David Lean’s films — Lawrence of Arabia, A Passage to India — which just transported me to another place and another culture. I loved that.

That was back in the early VHS days, and I had just about every Bond film that had been released. I watched them obsessively. In high school, my closest friend worked in a video rental store, so we constantly had movies. It was always a huge thing for me, but never in my life did I dream of pursuing it. The language of film was never anything I studied or thought about until I was kind of thrust into it.

What was it like coming into this film with Rob Marshall, after so many years of working with him? Do your collaborations now feel different from when you first started working together?
The most important part is trust. When I first met Rob, aside from just not having any confidence, I didn’t remotely know what I was doing. We all know that when you have your actors and your sets if something’s not quite right that’s the time to bring it up. But 12 years ago, the thought of me going to Rob and saying, “I don’t know if that really works, maybe you should grab a shot like…” I’d never, ever. But over the years we’ve developed that trust. I’m still very cautious with things like that, but I now know I can talk to him. And if he has a question, he’ll call me to set and say, “Quickly put this together,” or, “Stay here and watch this with me,” and he’ll explain to me exactly what he’s going for.

Then, once we reach post, unquestionably that relationship changes. We used to cut everything from scratch and start re-watching all the material and rebuilding the film again. Now we can work through existing cuts because I kind of know his intentions. It’s easier for me to see in the scene work what he’s going for, and that only comes from collaborating. Now I’m able to get the movie that’s in his head on screen a lot faster.

Mary Poppins Returns

You were working with complex animations and effects, and also combining those with elaborate choreography and live action. Was there more preplanning for this than you might normally have done?
I wasn’t really involved in the preplanning. I came in about a month before shooting to mostly to catch up with the schedules of the second unit, because I’m always going to work closely with them. I also went through all the storyboards and worked with visual effects and caught up on their look development. We did have a previz team, but we only really needed to previz two of the sequences in the film — the underwater bath time and the balloon sequence.

While previz gives you methodology, shot count, rough lenses and things, it’s missing the real emotion of the story because it is a video game and often cut like a music video. This is no disrespect to previz editors — they’re very good — but I always want to come in and do a pass before we start shooting because I find the timings are very different.

Doctor Strange

Take a film like Marvel’s Doctor Strange. So much of it had been prevized to figure out how to do it. When I came into the Doctor Strange previz cuts early on, they were exciting, psychedelic, wild and really imaginative, but I was losing actors. I found that something that was running at four minutes wasn’t representing any of the dialogue or the emotional content of the actors. So I asked them to give me stills of close-ups to cut them in. After putting in the dialogue, that four-minute sequence becomes seven minutes and you realize it’s too long. Before we go shoot it, how do we make it something that’s more manageable for the ultimate film?

Were you on set during most of the filming?
There were days where Rob would pull me onto set, and then days or weeks where I wouldn’t even see him. I did the traditional assembly process. Even the film I’m cutting right now, which has a very short schedule, four days after they were done shooting I had a cut of the film. It’s the only way for me to know that it’s working. It’s not a great cut, but I know that the movie’s all there. And, most importantly, I need to know, barring the last day of shooting, that I’ve seen every single frame of every take before they wrap. I need the confidence of knowing where it’s all going. I don’t want to discover any of that with a director in post.

On a project this complex, I imagine you must work with multiple assistants?
When I worked on the second Thor movie, The Dark World, I had a friend who was my first assistant, Meagan Costello. She has worked on many Marvel films. When Doctor Strange came up — I think it was almost a year before shooting that I got the call from the director saying I was in —within five seconds, I called Meagan because of her experience, her personality and her incredible skill set. Toward the end of Doctor Strange, when the schedule for Poppins was starting to lock in, she said, “I’ve always wanted to live in New York, and I’ve always wanted to work in a music hall.” I said, “We can make that happen.”

Thor: The Dark World

She is great at running the cutting room, taking care of all of my little, and many, prima donna bugaboos — how things are set up and working, technically, cutting in surround, having the right types of monitors, etc. What’s also important is having someone spiritually and emotionally connected into the film… someone I can talk to and trust.

We had two second assistant editors on Mary Poppins once we were in post — two in the US and two in London. It’s always interesting when you have two different teams. I try to keep as much consistency as I can, so we had Meagan all the way through London and New York. For second assistants in London, we had Gemma Bourne, Ben Renton and Tom Lane. Here in the states we had Alexander Johnson and Christa Haley. Christa is my first assistant on the film I’m currently doing for Focus Features, called Harriet.

On huge films like these, so much of the assistant editor’s time is dealing with the vast deliveries for the studio, the needs of a huge sound and music team as well as a lot of visual effects. In the end, we had about 1,300 hundred visual effect shots. That means a lot of turnovers, screenings and quality control so that nothing is ever coming in or going out without being meticulously watched and listened to.

The first assistant runs the cutting room and the stuff I shouldn’t be thinking about. It’s not stuff I would do well either. I want to be solely focusing on the edit, and when I’m lost in the movie, that’s the greatest thing. Having a strong editorial team allows me to be in a place where I’m not thinking about anything but the cut.

Mary Poppins Returns

That’s always good to hear. Most editors I talk to also care about making sure their assistants are getting opportunities.
When I started out, I had assistants in the room with me. It was very much film-style — the assistant was in the room helping me out with the director and the producers every day. If I had to run out of the room, the assistant could step in.

Unfortunately, the way the world has evolved, with digital post, the assistant editor and editor positions have diverged massively. The skill sets are very different. I don’t think I could do a first assistant editor’s job, but I know they could do my job. Also, the extra level of material keeps them very busy, so they’re not with me in the room. That makes for a much harder path, and that bothers me. I don’t quite know how to fix that yet, but I want to.

This industry started with apprentices, and it was very guild-like. Assistants were very hands on with the editor, so it was very natural to become an editor. Right now, that jump is a little tricky, and I wish I knew how to fix it.

Even if the assistants cut something together for you, it doesn’t necessarily evolve into them getting to work with a director or producer. With Poppins, there’s certainly a scene or two in the film that I asked Meagan to put together for that purpose. Rob works very closely in the cutting room each day, along with John DeLuca, our producer and choreographer. I was wondering if there would be that moment when maybe they’d split off, like, “Oh, go with Meagan and work on this, while I work on this with Rob.” But those opportunities never really arose. It’s hard to figure out how to get that door open.

Do you have any advice for editors who are just starting out?
I love the material I’m working on, and that’s the most important part. Even if something’s not for you, your job is not to make it what you want it to be. The job is to figure out who the audience is and how you make it great for them. There’s an audience for everything, you just have to tap into who that audience is.


Amy Leland is a film director and editor. Her short film, “Echoes”, is now available on Amazon Video. She also has a feature documentary in post, a feature screenplay in development, and a new doc in pre-production. She is an editor for CBS Sports Network and recently edited the feature “Sundown.” You can follow Amy on social media on Twitter at @amy-leland and Instagram at @la_directora.

Catching up with Aquaman director James Wan

By Iain Blair

Director James Wan has become one of the biggest names in Hollywood thanks to the $1.5 billion-grossing Fast & Furious 7, as well as the Saw, Conjuring and Insidious films — three of the most successful horror franchises of the last decade.

Now the Malaysian-born, Australian-raised Wan, who also writes and produces, has taken on the challenge of bringing Aquaman and Atlantis to life. The origin story of half-surface dweller, half-Atlantean Arthur Curry stars Jason Momoa in the title role. Amber Heard plays Mera, a fierce warrior and Aquaman’s ally throughout his journey.

James Wan and Iain Blair

Additional cast includes Willem Dafoe as Vulko, council to the Atlantean throne; Patrick Wilson as Orm, the present King of Atlantis; Dolph Lundgren as Nereus, King of the Atlantean tribe Xebel; Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as the revenge-seeking Manta; and Nicole Kidman as Arthur’s mom, Atlanna.

Wan’s team behind the scenes included such collaborators as Oscar-nominated director of photography Don Burgess (Forrest Gump), his five-time editor Kirk Morri (The Conjuring), production designer Bill Brzeski (Iron Man 3), visual effects supervisor Kelvin McIlwain (Furious 7) and composer Rupert Gregson-Williams (Wonder Woman).

I spoke with the director about making the film, dealing with all the effects, and his workflow.

Aquaman is definitely not your usual superhero. What was the appeal of doing it? 
I didn’t grow up with Aquaman, but I grew up with other comic books, and I always was well aware of him as he’s iconic. A big part of the appeal for me was he’d never really been done before — not on the big screen and not really on TV. He’s never had the spotlight before. The other big clincher was this gave me the opportunity to do a world-creation film, to build a unique world we’ve never seen before. I loved the idea of creating this big fantasy world underwater.

What sort of film did you set out to make?
Something that was really faithful and respectful to the source material, as I loved the world of the comic book once I dove in. I realized how amazing this world is and how interesting Aquaman is. He’s bi-racial, half-Atlantean, half-human, and he feels he doesn’t really fit in anywhere at the start of the film. But by the end, he realizes he’s the best of both worlds and he embraces that. I loved that. I also loved the fact it takes place in the ocean so I could bring in issues like the environment and how we treat the sea, so I felt it had a lot of very cool things going for it — quite apart from all the great visuals I could picture.

Obviously, you never got the Jim Cameron post-Titanic memo — never, ever shoot in water.
(Laughs) I know, but to do this we unfortunately had to get really wet as over 2/3rds of the film is set underwater. The crazy irony of all this is when people are underwater they don’t look wet. It’s only when you come out of the sea or pool that you’re glossy and dripping.

We did a lot of R&D early on, and decided that shooting underwater looking wet wasn’t the right look anyway, plus they’re superhuman and are able to move in water really fast, like fish, so we adopted the dry-for-wet technique. We used a lot of special rigs for the actors, along with bluescreen, and then combined all that with a ton of VFX for the hair and costumes. Hair is always a big problem underwater, as like clothing it behaves very differently, so we had to do a huge amount of work in post in those areas.

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
It’s that kind of movie where you have to start post and all the VFX almost before you start production. We did so much prep, just designing all the worlds and figuring out how they’d look, and how the actors would interact with them. We hired an army of very talented concept artists, and I worked very closely with my production designer Bill Brzeski, my DP Don Burgess and my visual effects supervisor Kelvin McIlwain. We went to work on creating the whole look and trying to figure out what we could shoot practically with the actors and stunt guys and what had to be done with VFX. And the VFX were crucial in dealing with the actors, too. If a body didn’t quite look right, they’d just replace them completely, and the only thing we’d keep was the face.

It almost sounds like making an animated film.
You’re right, as over 90% of it was VFX. I joke about it being an animated movie, but it’s not really a joke. It’s no different from, say, a Pixar movie.

Did you do a lot of previs?
A lot, with people like Third Floor, Day For Nite, Halon, Proof and others. We did a lot of storyboards too, as they are quicker if you want to change a camera angle, or whatever, on the fly. Then I’d hand them off to the previs guys and they’d build on those.

What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together on the shoot?
We shot most of it Down Under, near Brisbane. We used all nine of Village Roadshow Studios’ soundstages, including the new Stage 9, as we had over 50 sets, including the Atlantis Throne Room and Coliseum. The hardest thing in terms of shooting it was just putting all the actors in the rigs for the dry-for-wet sequences; they’re very cumbersome and awkward, and the actors are also in these really outrageous costumes, and it can be quite painful at times for them. So you can’t have them up there too long. That was hard. Then we used a lot of newish technology, like virtual production, for scenes where the actors are, say, riding creatures underwater.

We’d have it hooked up to the cameras so you could frame a shot and actually see the whole environment and the creature the actor is supposed to be on — even though it’s just the actors and bluescreen and the creature is not there. And I could show the actors — look, you’re actually riding a giant shark — and also tell the camera operator to pan left or right. So it was invaluable in letting me adjust performance and camera setups as we shot, and all the actors got an idea of what they were doing and how the VFX would be added later in post. Designing the film was so much fun, but executing it was a pain.

The film was edited by Kirk Morri, who cut Furious 7, and worked with you on the Insidious and The Conjuring films. How did that work?
He wasn’t on set but he’d visit now and again, especially when we were shooting something crazy and it would be cool to actually see it. Then we’d send dailies and he’d start assembling, as we had so much bluescreen and VFX stuff to deal with. I’d hop in for an hour or so at the end of each day’s shoot to go over things as I’m very hands on — so much so that I can drive editors crazy, but Kirk puts up with all that.

I like to get a pretty solid cut from the start. I don’t do rough assemblies. I like to jump straight into the real cut, and that was so important on this because every shot is a VFX shot. So the sooner you can lock the shot, the better, and then the VFX teams can start their work. If you keep changing the cut, then you’ll never get your VFX shots done in time. So we’d put the scene together, then pass it to previs, so you don’t just have actors floating in a bluescreen, but they’re in Atlantis or wherever.

Where did you do the post?
We did most of it back in LA on the Warner lot.

Do you like the post process?
I absolutely love it, and it’s very important to my filmmaking style. For a start, I can never give up editing and tweaking all the VFX shots. They have to pull it away from me, and I’d say that my love of all the elements of the post process — editing, sound design, VFX, music — comes from my career in suspense movies. Getting all the pieces of post right is so crucial to the end result and success of any film. This post was creatively so much fun, but it was long and hard and exhausting.

James Wan

All the VFX must have been a huge challenge.
(Laughs) Yes, as there’s over 2,500 VFX shots and we had everyone working on it — ILM, Scanline, Base, Method, MPC, Weta, Rodeo, Digital Domain, Luma — anyone who had a computer! Every shot had some VFX, even the bar scene where Arthur’s with his dad. That was a set, but the environment outside the window was all VFX.

What was the hardest VFX sequence to do?
The answer is, the whole movie. The trench sequence was hard, but Scanline did a great job. Anything underwater was tough, and then the big final battle was super-difficult, and ILM did all that.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
For the most part, but like most directors, I’m never fully satisfied.


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.