The Two Popes, directed by Fernando Meirelles, stars Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce as current pontiff Pope Francis in a story about one of the most dramatic transitions of power in the Catholic Church’s history. The film follows a frustrated Cardinal Bergoglio (the future Pope Francis) who in 2012 requests permission from Pope Benedict to retire because of his issues with the direction of the church. Instead, facing scandal and self-doubt, the introspective Benedict summons his harshest critic and future successor to Rome to reveal a secret that would shake the foundations of the Catholic Church.
London’s Union was approached in May 2017 and supervised visual effects on location in Argentina and Italy over several months. A large proportion of the film takes place within the walls of Vatican City. The Vatican was not involved in the production and the team had very limited or no access to some of the key locations.
Under the direction of production designer Mark Tildesley, the production replicated parts of the Vatican at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios, including a life-size, open ceiling, Sistine Chapel, which took two months to build.
The team LIDAR-scanned everything available and set about amassing as much reference material as possible — photographing from a permitted distance, scanning the set builds and buying every photographic book they could lay their hands on.
From this material, the team set about building 3D models — created in Autodesk Maya — of St. Peter’s Square, the Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. The environments team was tasked with texturing all of these well-known locations using digital matte painting techniques, including recreating Michelangelo’s masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
The story centers on two key changes of pope in 2005 and 2013. Those events attracted huge attention, filling St. Peter’s Square with people eager to discover the identity of the new pope and celebrate his ascension. News crews from around the world also camp out to provide coverage for the billions of Catholics all over the world.
To recreate these scenes, the crew shot at a school in Rome (Ponte Mammolo) that has the same pattern on its floor. A cast of 300 extras was shot in blocks in different positions at different times of day, with costume tweaks including the addition of umbrellas to build a library that would provide enough flexibility during post to recreate these moments at different times of day and in different weather conditions.
Union also called on Clear Angle Studios to individually scan 50 extras to provide additional options for the VFX team. This was an ambitious crowd project, so the team couldn’t shoot in the location, and the end result had to stand up at 4K in very close proximity to the camera. Union designed a Houdini-based system to deal with the number of assets and clothing in such a way that the studio could easily art-direct them as individuals, allow the director to choreograph them and deliver a believable result.
Union conducted several motion capture shoots inhouse at Union to provide some specific animation cycles that married with the occasions they were recreating. This provided even more authentic-looking crowds for the post team.
Union worked on a total of 288 VFX shots, including greenscreens, set extensions, window reflections, muzzle flashes, fog and rain and a storm that included a lightning strike on the Basilica.
In addition, the team did a significant amount of de-aging work to accommodate the film’s eight-year main narrative timeline as well as a long period in Pope Francis’ younger years.
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, tells the story of organized crime in post-war America as seen through the eyes of World War II veteran Frank Sheeran (DeNiro), a hustler and hitman who worked alongside some of the most notorious figures of the 20th century. In the film, the actors have been famously de-aged, thanks to VFX house ILM, but it wasn’t just their faces that needed to be younger.
In this video interview, Academy Award-winning re-recording sound mixer and decades-long Scorsese collaborator Tom Fleischman — who will receive the Cinema Audio Society’s Career Achievement Award in January — talks about de-aging actors’ voices as well as the challenges of keeping the film’s sound focused and intimate.
“We really had to try and preserve the quality of their voices in spite of the fact we were trying to make them sound younger. And those edits are sometimes difficult to achieve without it being apparent to the audience. We tried to do various types of pitch changing and we us used different kinds of plugins. I listened to scenes from Serpico for Al Pacino and The King of Comedy for Bob DeNiro and tried to match the voice quality of what we had from The Irishman to those earlier movies.”
Fleischman worked on the film at New York’s Soundtrack.
New York’s International Digital Centre (IDC) has opened a new 6,800-square-foot digital post facility in Hollywood, with Rosanna Marino serving as COO. She will manage the day-to-day operations of the West Coast post house. IDC LA will focus on serving the entertainment, content creation, distribution and streaming industries.
Marino will manage sales, marketing, engineering and the day-to-day operations for the Hollywood location, while IDC founder/CEO Marcy Gilbert, will lead the company’s overall activities and New York headquarters.
IDC will provide finishing, color grading and editorial in Dolby Vision 4K HDR, UHD as well as global QC. IDC LA features 11 bays and a DI theater, which includes Dolby 7.1 Atmos audio mixing, dubbing and audio description. They are also providing subtitle and closed caption-timed text creation and localization, ABS scripting and translations in over 40 languages.
To complete the end-to-end chain, they provide IMF and DCP creation, supplemental and all media fulfillment processing, including audio and timed text conforms for distribution. IDC is an existing Netflix Partner Program member — NP3 in New York and NPFP for the Americas and Canada.
IDC LA occupies the top two floors and rooftop deck in a vintage 1930’s brick building on Santa Monica Boulevard.
Marshall Adams, ASC, has been working on episodic projects for years, but his road to cinematographer wasn’t a straight one. Adams started as a production assistant on small commercials and docs, but quickly discovered that lighting was his passion.
Adams (right) on set with Vince Gilligan
Adams’ first break was on second unit for Felicity with Michael Bonvillian, ASC. He eventually took on cinematography duties for the series’ final season. Some of Adams’ credits include Monk, CSI: NY and Better Call Saul. His most recent work can be seen in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie for Netflix.
We reached out to talk to him about his work in El Camino and his transition from gaffer to cinematographer.
Tell us about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. How early did you get involved in planning for it?
I got a call from director Vince Gilligan in the fall of 2018, and he talked to me about the project and asked me to come on board.
Prior to that, I had gotten the chance to shoot pick-up shots for the end of Breaking Bad Season 4, which led to shooting the Season 5 opener for cinematographer and director extraordinaire Michael Slovis, ASC. I was on another show, so I wasn’t available to come back, but when Better Call Saul DP Arthur Albert (Seasons 1 and 2) had another project, I got the wonderful opportunity and ended up shooting Seasons 3 through Season 5 of Saul.
I had never gotten a call from Vince directly before, but I knew to answer it!
How would you describe the look of El Camino?
On Saul, I wanted to create realistic, practical-driven looks for night exteriors and low-light interiors that embraced all the colors and looks of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The high ISO on the Panasonic VariCam made that possible. Vince said he wanted to expand upon that look for El Camino, but also stay within the naturalistic look created on the series.
We were very cognizant of tipping the hat to Michael Slovis’ work on Breaking Bad, which was shot on 35mm film, and the overall feel of the series. In our original conversations, we both assumed El Camino would be shot on film. We wanted the flashbacks to have a different feel and style than the “present day” but without using some of the usual visual cues like desaturation or exaggerated color, etc. What we decided that made the most sense was for all the flashbacks to be handheld like most of the series was and the present time would be more anchored. But again, Michael’s work was so good on the series it made it easy to follow his lead on sets like the compound interior or the vacuum shop.
So you shot in New Mexico?
We shot mainly at Albuquerque Studios with a few locations around the city. First week of principal photography probably started in mid-November 2018 and we finished around mid-February of this year.
How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses for this project? Why was this the right combination of gear?
Vince really wanted to shoot widescreen 2.39:1, so we tested all the cameras we could get, both digital and film and spherical and anamorphic. We viewed the footage in a double-blind test, meaning there was no way to tell from shot to shot which camera was used. We both fell in love with the ARRI Alexa 65 for lots of reasons but mostly for its low-light quality, which we knew we’d be doing shooting quite a bit of.
I knew lenses would be key to making the large-format camera work — because Vince likes lots of different lenses: long lens macros, zooms and everything in between. So, we needed a lens package compatible with the camera that would pair well and offer color and contrast consistency. We ended up getting as many of the ARRI DNA lenses as we could get our hands on, with the 45mm and 80mm becoming our go-to glass, along with a few Prime 65s to fill in, 100mm and 180mm Raptor macros, and a couple of zooms adapted for the large format. This combo allowed us to shoot low light efficiently but mostly control depth of field.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie
Who was the colorist and how did you work together to achieve the vision for the film?
Dave Cole at FotoKem was my partner in crime. He was phenomenal. Vince hired me knowing I hadn’t shot a feature, and Dave and FotoKem were amazing at guiding us through that experience. With their suggestions, and the help of both my DITs, I was able to capture everything within range exposure wise, so we were able to spend more time on the artistry of the images in the DI versus repairing things. Dave was full of ideas and is very talented. I spent one weekend with Vince and Dave early on in color timing, went off to shoot Saul and then took an episode off to finish up with Vince, Dave and the team.
Dave and I started with the SDR theatrical version first and set the look. Then we were really able to do interesting things with the other versions — which were finished for 1,000-nit 4K HDR and 4,000 nit, as well as a Dolby Vision theatrical pass. We hopped over to Keep Me Posted (a FotoKem company), where we finish Saul, as they had the right monitor for the Dolby Vision pass. The process was very smooth.
Can you describe the lighting?
The gaffer Andrew Smith is an old friend, so we already had a type of shorthand with each other. We spent a lot of time during prep at the night locations and talked about what practicals we wanted to keep, get rid of, change, etc. The great thing about a feature film (versus an episodic series) is you get more time to work on all this.
Now more general questions….
How did you become interested in filmmaking?
My dad had a Super 8 camera and flatbed and I made skateboard movies as a young teen. I also was always volunteering at a theater, where some friends hung out. The creative bug was around me but it wasn’t until David Chase bought a house my dad designed (an architect) that I started to envision a career in filmmaking. David found out I made films and, at the time, he was staff writer on The Rockford Files. He asked me to come watch an episode with him – from writing to shoot. It was coolest thing ever.
I tried film school but I was getting jobs that eventually got me into the union. I’ve even tried my hand at directing, and I appreciated the opportunity, but lighting and cinematography are my passion.
How do you stay on top of advancing technology?
Since there’s a new camera at every turn, sometimes my rental house tells me about new cameras, and I also have someone on my crew who keeps up on everything. I don’t know how he does it, but he shares a lot of great info with me.
What new technology has changed the way you work (looking back over the past few years)?
The speed of cameras. These days they have 3,200 to 5,000 ISO, or faster, versus film, which when pushed can get to 800 or 1,000 ISO. The faster speed allows me to incorporate more practicals and use smaller lights, which fits my style lately.
I was a film guy, coming up using 35mm and 16mm film. CSI: NY was shot on film until we changed to digital after the sixth season. I love the look of film and was resistant to the change, but I have to use the right tool for a particular project. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s very important that we do what we can to keep film alive, and I’ll happily shoot film anytime, but as much as I love it, it can be more labor intensive for big night exteriors. But there’s nothing like the magic that happens in a 35mm camera.
What are some of your best practices or rules you try to follow on each job?
In general, the camera operator and I talk about every shot early on and then I leave things with the operator so I can spend more time on lighting with the gaffer and key grip.
What’s your go-to gear?
The Litepanels 1×1 with a 30-degree grid. It’s a 12-inch LED panel light that I use near the camera usually with a ring inside so the source is round and not square. I use it for all my eyelights. I believe you have more freedom lighting-wise in cinematography if you can see a character’s eyes. For me this is the best tool to control eye reflections without feeling like it’s adding any light.
Colorists are often called on to help enhance a particular mood or item for a film, show or spot. For Netflix’s In the Tall Grass — based on a story from horror writers Stephen King and Joe Hill — director Vincenzo Natali and DP Craig Wrobleski called on Deluxe Toronto’s Joanne Rourke to finesse the film’s final look using color to give the grass, which plays such a large part in the film, personality.
In fact, most of the film takes place in a dense Kansas field. It all begins when a brother and his pregnant sister hear a boy’s cries coming from a field of tall grass and go to find him. Soon they realize they can’t escape.
“I worked with Vincenzo more than 20 years ago when I did the video mastering for his film Cube, so it was wonderful to reconnect with him and a privilege to work with Craig. The color process on this project was highly collaborative and we experimented a lot. It was decided to keep the day exteriors natural and sunny with subtle chromatic variations between. While this approach is atypical for horror flicks, it really lends itself to a more unsettling and ominous feeling when things begin to go awry,” explains Rourke.
In the Tall Grass was principally shot using the ARRI Alexa LF camera system, which helped give the footage a more immersive feeling when the characters are trapped in the grass. The grass itself comprised a mix of practical and CG grass that Rourke adjusted the color of depending on the time of day and where the story was taking place in the field. For the night scenes, she focused on giving the footage a silvery look while keeping the overall look as dark as possible with enough details visible. She was also mindful to keep the mysterious rock dark and shadowed.
Rourke completed the film’s first color pass in HDR, then used that version to create an SDR trim pass. She found the biggest challenge of working in HDR on this film to be reining in unwanted specular highlights in night scenes. To adjust for this, she would often window specific areas of the shot, an approach that leveraged the benefits of HDR without pushing the look to the extreme. She used Blackmagic Resolve 15 along with the occasional Boris FX Sapphire plugins.
“Everyone involved on this project had a keen attention to detail and was so invested in the final look of the project, which made for such great experience,” says Rourke. “I have many favorite shots, but I love how the visual of the dead crow on the ground perfectly captures the silver feel. Craig and Vincenzo created such stunning imagery, and I was just happy to be along for the ride. Also, I had no idea that head squishing could be so gleeful and fun.”
Goldcrest Post senior colorist Nat Jencks will take part in a discussion about the technology and creativity behind the Netflix series Russian Doll at NAB Show New York. Joining Jencks will be post supervisor Lisa Melodia in a session moderated by our own postPerspective editor-in-chief Randi Altman.
The session will take place on Thursday, October 17 at 3:30pm at the Javits Convention Center. Those wishing to attend this event may do so for free by entering the code EP06 when registering for NAB Show New York.
Nominated for 13 Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series and Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Comedy Series, Russian Doll has won critical acclaim and popular embrace for its story of a young New York City woman, Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne), who, after being killed in a traffic accident, finds herself continuously reliving a birthday party held in her honor the same night. Think of Groundhog’s Day, but darker.
In this session, Jencks and Melodia will discuss how they balance art and tech, taking advantage of the latest technologies in depicting a highly cinematic version of New York’s East Village while still prioritizing creativity in storytelling. They will also discuss the intricacies of working in 4K HDR.
Goldcrest’s Jencks collaborated once again with cinematographer Chris Teague to finalize the look of Russian Doll. A colorist with 10 years of experience in this aspect of the job, Jencks’ work ranges from studio features to indies and includes episodic series, commercials and music videos. Jencks has worked in post for two decades total, including in the fields of VFX, title design and editorial. Melodia is a post supervisor working in New York City. Prior to Russian Doll, she worked on comedies such as The Jim Gaffigan Show for TV Land and The Detour for TBS, as well as movies for HBO. Currently, she is the post supervisor on Darren Star’s new show, Emily in Paris.
UK-based cinematographer Si Bell is known for his work on the critically acclaimed feature films Electricity (2015), In Darkness (2019) and Tiger Raid (2016), as well as high-profile TV shows such as Fortitude, Hard Sun, Britannia and Ripper Street. He is currently working on the new Steven Knight drama special, A Christmas Carol.
He also shot the new season of Peaky Blinders, which begins airing on BBC One on August 25 and then makes its way to Netflix on October 4. Peaky Blinders takes place in Birmingham, England not long after World War I, and follows the Shelby family and its mafia-like business. The show is often dark, brutally violent and completely compelling. It stars Cillian Murphy as Thomas Shelby.
We recently reached out to Bell to ask him about his work on this current season of the edgy crime drama, followed by a look at his career in cinematography.
Tell us about Peaky Blinders Season 5. How early did you get involved in planning for the season? What direction did the showrunners give you about the look they wanted this season?
I got involved pretty early on and ended up having over 10 weeks prep, which is a long time for a TV show. I worked closely with Anthony Byrne, our director, whom I know very well. As the scripts came in, we began to discuss and plan how we were going to tackle the story.
I met with the showrunners early on as well, and they really loved the work Anthony and I had done in the past together on the movie In Darkness and on Ripper Street. Anthony is a very visual director and they trusted us both, so that was really amazing. They wanted us to do Peaky but also to bring our own style and way of working to the table. We were massive fans of the show and had big respect for what the previous directors and cinematographers had done. We knew we had big shoes to fill!
How would you describe the look?
I would describe the Peaky Blinders look as very stylized and larger than life. Lighting wise, it’s known for beams of light, smoke and atmosphere and an almost theatrical look with over cranked camera moves and speed ramps. I wanted to push some realism into the show and not make things quite as theatrical this season yet still keep that Peaky vibe. Tommy (Cillian Murphy) is battling with himself and his own demons more than anyone else in our story.
I wanted to try and show this with the lighting and the camera style. We also tried to use more developing shots in certain scenes to put the audience right in the center of the action and create this sense of visceral realism. We tried to motivate every decision based on how to tell the story in the best and most powerful way to bring out the emotional aspects and really connect with audience.
How did you work with the directors and colorist to achieve the intended look?
I used my DIT James Shovlar to create a look on set for the offline edit and we used that as a starting point for the grade. Then Anthony and I worked with grader Paul Staples at Deluxe in London, whom we had worked with on Ripper Street, and from the reference grade Paul created the finished look. Paul really understood where we wanted to take it, and I’m really pleased with how it turned out. We didn’t want it to feel too pushed but we still wanted it to look like Peaky Blinders.
Where was it shot, and how long was the shoot?
We shot around the northwest of England. We were based mainly in Manchester where we built a number of sets, including the Garrison, Houses of Parliament and Shelby HQ. We also shot in Birmingham, Liverpool, Rochdale and Bradford. We shot 16 five-day weeks in total.
How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses for this project?
We had to shoot 4K, so the standard ARRI Alexa was off the table. A friend of mine, Sam McCurdy, BSC, had mentioned he had been shooting on the new Red Monstro and said he was really blown away by the images. I tested it and thought it was perfect for us. We coupled that with Cooke Anamorphic lenses and delivered in a 2:1 ratio.
Can you describe the lighting?
The lighting is a big part of Peaky Blinders, and it had to be right. My gaffer Oliver Whickman and I used our prep time to draw up detailed lighting plans, which included all of our machine and rigging requirements. We had 91 different lighting diagrams, and because we were scouting and planning the whole six episodes, it was very important that everything had to be written down in a clear, accurate way that could be passed on to our rigging crews.
We were scouting in September 2018, but some of the locations we weren’t shooting until January 2019 and we weren’t going to come back to them because we were so busy shooting. Oliver used the Shot Designer app to make the plans and we made printed books for the rigging gaffer and our best boy Alan Millar. It was certainly the most technically difficult job I have ever done in terms of planning, but everything went very smoothly.
Are there any scenes that you are particularly proud of or found most challenging?
There were many challenging scenes and sets. I’m really pleased how the opening sequence in Chinatown turned out. Also, there’s a big sequence set around a ballet, and I loved how that came together. I thought the design was great, with all the practicals that our designer Nicole Northridge installed in the set. There’s so much in this series, it’s hard to mention one thing.
I’m very proud of all our team. Everyone worked so hard and put so much into it, and I really think it shows. My camera operator Andrew Fletcher, focus puller Tom Finch and key grip Paul Kemp provided exceptional talent to the project. Not only are they great friends, they are the best of the best at what they do and I’m very proud of everything they did on Peaky.
Now let’s dig into some general DP questions. How did you become interested in cinematography?
I used to make skate videos, and then I studied photography in college and started to get interested in the idea of making films. I studied film production at university, and then started to work as a camera trainee once I left. At first I thought I wanted to be a director and made some short films, but after training under some great DPs — Sam McCurdy, BSC, and Lol Crawley, BSC — I realized that’s what I wanted to do, so I started shooting as much as I could and went from there.
What inspires you artistically? And how do you simultaneously stay on top of advancing technology?
I am inspired by watching movies or TV with great stories. I’m also inspired by working with talented people, great directors, great producers and people with a great passion for what they do. Peaky Blinders was massively inspiring as we got to work with some of the greatest actors of our age who are at the top of their game. Working at that level, you need to up your game and that also was massively inspiring.
I always stay on top of new technology by going to trade shows and reading trade magazines.
What new technology has changed the way you work?
I think the camera getting smaller has been the biggest change, as we can use drones, Trinity rigs and other gimbals to move the camera in ways we could never even have dreamed of five years ago.
What are some of your best practices you try to follow on each job?
I always try to bring all my own crew if I can. We have a tight team and it’s so much easier if I can bring all of my guys onto a job as we all have a shorthand with each other. Additionally, I always do detailed lighting diagrams with my gaffer and put in lots of prep and time into the planning of the lighting so we can move quickly and adapt on the day. I also try to build a good relationship with the director as much as I can before shooting.
Explain your ideal collaboration with the director or showrunner when starting a new project.
For me it’s ideal when you work with someone who wants to hear your ideas and bounces off you creatively. It should be a collaboration, and you should be able to talk openly about ideas and feel like you’re valued. That connection is very important — sometimes you click, and sometimes you don’t — it’s about chemistry.
What’s your go-to gear? Things you can’t live without?
Things change depending on the show, but I love a Technocrane and a good remote head. If the show has the budget, they are such brilliant tools to move a camera and find the shot quickly.
On Peaky Blinders we used the ARRI Trinity camera stabilizer quite a lot, which is especially great if you have operator Andrew Fletcher, who is a master!
Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years.
Netflix’s Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW) are back in the ring for a third round of the dramatic comedy, but this time the girls are in Las Vegas. The glitz and glamour of Sin City seems tailor-made for the 1980s-set GLOW and provided the main creative challenge for Season 3 cinematographer Chris Teague (Russian Doll, Broad City).
DP Chris Teague
“Early on, I met with Christian Sprenger, who shot the first season and designed the initial look,” says Teague, who was recently nominated for an Emmy for his work on Russian Doll. “We still want GLOW to feel like GLOW, but the story and character arc of Season 3 and the new setting led us to build on the look and evolve elements like lighting and dynamic range.”
The GLOW team is headlining the Fan-Tan Hotel & Casino, one of two main sets along with a hotel built for the series and featuring the distinctive Vegas skyline as a backdrop.
“We discussed compositing actors against greenscreen, but that would have turned every shot into a VFX shot and would have been too costly, not to mention time-intensive on a TV schedule like ours,” he says. “Plus, working with a backdrop just felt aesthetically right.”
In that vein, production designer Todd Fjelsted built a skyline using miniatures, a creative decision in keeping with the handcrafted look of the show. That decision, though, required extensive testing of lenses, lighting and look prior to shooting. This testing was done in partnership with post house Light Iron.
“There was no overall shift in the look of the show, but together with Light Iron, we felt the baseline LUT needed to be built on, particularly in terms of how we lit the sets,” explains Teague.
“Chris was clear early on that he wanted to build upon the look of the first two seasons,” says Light Iron colorist Ian Vertovec. “We adjusted the LUT to hold a little more color in the highlights than in past seasons. Originally, the LUT was based on a film emulation and adjusted for HDR. In Season 1, we created a period film look and transformed it for HDR to get a hybrid film emulation LUT. For Season 3, for HDR and standard viewing, we made tweaks to the LUT so that some of the colors would pop more.”
The show was also finished in Dolby Vision HDR. “There was some initial concern about working with backdrops and stages in HDR,” Teague says. “We are used to the way film treats color over its exposure range — it tends to desaturate as it gets more overexposed — whereas HDR holds a lot more color information in overexposure. However, Ian showed how it can be a creative tool.”
Colorist Ian Vertovec
“The goal was to get the 1980s buildings in the background and out the hotel windows to look real — emulating marquees with flashing lights,” adds Vertovec. “We also needed it to be a believable Nevada sky and skyline. Skies and clouds look different in HDR. So, when dialing this in, we discussed how they wanted it to look. Did it feel real? Is the sky in this scene too blue? Information from testing informed production, so everything was geared toward these looks.”
“Ian has been on the first two seasons, so he knows the look inside and out and has a great eye,” Teague continues. “It’s nice to come into a room and have his point of view. Sometimes when you are staring at images all day, it’s easy to lose your objectivity, so I relied on Ian’s insight.” Vertovec grades the show on FilmLight’s Baselight.
As with Season 2, GLOW Season 3 was a Red Helium shoot using Red’s IPP2 color pipeline in conjunction with Vertovec’s custom LUTs all the way to post. Teague shot full 8K resolution to accommodate his choice of Cooke anamorphic lenses, desqueezed and finished in a 2:1 ratio.
“For dailies I used an iPad with Moxion, which is perhaps the best dailies viewing platform I’ve ever worked with. I feel like the color is more accurate than other platforms, which is extremely useful for checking out contrast and shadow level. Too many times with dailies you get blacks washed out and highlights blown and you can’t judge anything critical.”
Teague sat in on the grade of the first three of the 10 episodes and then used the app to pull stills and make notes remotely. “With Ian I felt like we were both on the same page. We also had a great DIT [Peter Brunet] who was doing on-set grading for reference and was able to dial in things at a much higher level than I’ve been able to do in the past.”
The most challenging but also rewarding work was shooting the wrestling performances. “We wanted to do something that felt a little bigger, more polished, more theatrical,” Teague says. “The performance space had tiered seating, which gave us challenges and options in terms of moving the cameras. For example, we could use telescoping crane work to reach across the room and draw characters in as they enter the wrestling ring.”
He commends gaffer Eric Sagot for inspiring lighting cues and building them into the performance. “The wrestling scenes were the hardest to shoot but they’re exciting to watch — dynamic, cinematic and deliberately a little hokey in true ‘80s Vegas style.”
Adrian Pennington is a UK-based journalist, editor and commentator in the film and TV production space. He has co-written a book on stereoscopic 3D and edited several publications.
If all ambitious TV shows with a ton of visual effects aspire to be cinematic, then Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy has to be the gold standard. The acclaimed sci-fi, superhero, adventure mash-up was just Emmy-nominated for its season-ending episode “The White Violin,” which showcased a full range of spectacular VFX. This included everything from the fully-CG Dr. Pogo to blowing up the moon and a mansion to the characters’ varied superpowers. Those VFX, mainly created by movie powerhouse Weta Digital in New Zealand and Spin VFX in Toronto, indeed rival anything in cinema. This is partly thanks to Netflix’s 4K pipeline.
The Umbrella Academy is based on the popular, Eisner Award-winning comics and graphic novels created and written by Gerard Way (“My Chemical Romance”), illustrated by Gabriel Bá, and published by Dark Horse Comics.
The story starts when, on the same day in 1989, 43 infants are born to unconnected women who showed no signs of pregnancy the day before. Seven are adopted by Sir Reginald Hargreeves, a billionaire industrialist, who creates The Umbrella Academy and prepares his “children” to save the world. But not everything went according to plan. In their teenage years, the family fractured and the team disbanded. Now, six of the surviving members reunite upon the news of Hargreeves’ death. Luther, Diego, Allison, Klaus, Vanya and Number Five work together to solve a mystery surrounding their father’s death. But the estranged family once again begins to come apart due to divergent personalities and abilities, not to mention the imminent threat of a global apocalypse.
The live-action series stars Ellen Page, Tom Hopper, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Robert Sheehan, David Castañeda, Aidan Gallagher, Cameron Britton and Mary J. Blige. It is produced by Universal Content Productions for Netflix. Steve Blackman (Fargo, Altered Carbon) is the executive producer and showrunner, with additional executive producers Jeff F. King, Bluegrass Television, and Mike Richardson and Keith Goldberg from Dark Horse Entertainment.
I spoke with senior visual effects supervisor and co-producer Everett Burrell (Pan’sLabyrinth, Altered Carbon), who has an Emmy for his work on Babylon 5, about creating the VFX and the 4K pipeline.
Congratulations on being nominated for the first season-ending episode “The White Violin,” which showcased so many impressive visual effects.
Thanks. We’re all really proud of the work.
Have you started season two?
Yes, and we’re already knee-deep in the shooting up in Canada. We shoot in Toronto, where we’re based, as well as Hamilton, which has this great period look. So we’re up there quite a bit. We’re just back here in LA for a couple of weeks working on editorial with Steve Blackman, the executive producer and showrunner. Our offices are in Encino, in a merchant bank building. I’m a co-producer as well, so I also deal a lot with editorial — more than normal.
Have you planned out all the VFX for the new season?
To a certain extent. We’re working on the scripts and have a good jump on them. We definitely plan to blow the first season out of the water in terms of what we come up with.
What are the biggest challenges of creating all the VFX on the show?
The big one is the sheer variety of VFX, which are all over the map in terms of the various types. They go from a completely animated talking CG chimpanzee Dr. Pogo to creating a very unusual apocalyptic world, with scenes like blowing up the moon and, of course, all the superpowers. One of the hardest things we had to do — which no one will ever know just watching it — was a ton of leaf replacement on trees.
Digital leaves via Montreal’s Folks.
When we began shooting, it was winter and there were no leaves on the trees. When we got to editorial we realized that the story spans just eight days, so it wouldn’t make any sense if in one scene we had no leaves and in the next we had leaves. So we had to add every single leaf to the trees for all of the first five episodes, which was a huge amount of work. The way we did it was to go back to all the locations and re-shoot all the trees from the same angles once they were in bloom. Then we had to composite all that in. Folks in Montreal did all of it, and it was very complicated. Lola did a lot of great work on Hargreeves, getting his young look for the early 1900s and cleaning up the hair and wrinkles and making it all look totally realistic. That was very tricky too.
Netflix is ahead of the curve thanks to its 4K policy. Tell us about the pipeline.
For a start, we shoot with the ARRI Alexa 65, which is a very robust cinema camera that was used on The Revenant. With its 65mm sensor, it’s meant for big-scope, epic movies, and we decided to go with it to give our show that great cinema look. The depth of field is like film, and it can also emulate film grain for this fantastic look. That camera shoots natively at 5K — it won’t go any lower. That means we’re at a much higher resolution than any other show out there.
And you’re right, Netflix requires a 4K master as future-proofing for streaming and so on. Those very high standards then trickle down to us and all the VFX. We also use a very unique system developed by Deluxe and Efilm called Portal, which basically stores the entire show in the cloud on a server somewhere, and we can get background plates to the vendors within 10 minutes. It’s amazing. Back in the old days, you’d have to make a request and maybe within 24 or 48 hours, you’d get those plates. So this system makes it almost instantaneous, and that’s a lifesaver.
Method blows up the moon.
How closely do you work with Steve Blackman and the editors?
I think Steve said it best:”There’s no daylight between the two of us” We’re linked at the hip pretty much all the time. He comes to my office if he has issues, and I go to his if we have complications; we resolve all of it together in probably the best creative relationship I’ve ever had. He relies on me and counts on me, and I trust him completely. Bottom line, if we need to write ourselves out of a sticky situation, he’s also the head writer, so he’ll just go off and rewrite a scene to help us out.
How many VFX do you average for each show?
We average between 150 and 200 per episode. Last season we did nearly 2,000 in total, so it’s a huge amount for a TV show, and there’s a lot of data being pushed. Luckily, I have an amazing team, including my production manager Misato Shinohara. She’s just the best and really takes care of all the databases, and manages all the shot data, reference, slates and so on. All that stuff we take on set has to go into this massive database, and just maintaining that is a huge job.
Who are the main VFX vendors?
The VFX are mainly created by Weta in New Zealand and Spin VFX in Toronto. Weta did all the Pogo stuff. Then we have Folks, Lola, Marz, Deluxe Toronto, DigitalFilm Tree in LA… and then Method Studios in Vancouver did great work on our end-of-the-world apocalyptic sequence. They blew up the moon and had a chunk of it hitting the Earth, along with all the surrounding imagery. We started R&D on that pretty early to get a jump on it. We gave them storyboards and they did previz. We used that as a cut to get iterations of it all. There were a lot of particle simulations, which was pretty intense.
Weta created Dr. Pogo
What have been the most difficult VFX sequences to create?
Just dealing with Pogo is obviously very demanding, and we had to come up with a fast shortcut to dealing with the photo-real look as we just don’t have the time or budget they have for the Planet of the Apes movies. The big thing is integrating him in the room as an actor with the live actors, and that was a huge challenge. We used just two witness cameras to capture our Pogo body performer. All the apocalyptic scenes were also very challenging because of the scale, and then those leaves were very hard to do and make look real. That alone took us a couple of months. And we might have the same problem this year, as we’re shooting in the summer through fall, and I’m praying that the leaves don’t start falling before we wrap.
What have been the main advances in technology that have really helped you pull off some of the show’s VFX?
I think the rendering and the graphics cards are the big ones, and the hardware talks together much more efficiently now. Even just a few years ago, and it might have taken weeks and weeks to render a Pogo. Now we can do it in a day. Weta developed new software for creating the texture and fabric of Pogo’s clothes. They also refined their hair programs.
I assume as co-producer that you’re very involved with the DI?
I am… and keeping track of all that and making sure we keep pushing the envelope. We do the DI at Company 3 with colorist Jill Bogdanowicz, who’s a partner in all of this. She brings so much to the show, and her work is a big part of why it looks so good. I love the DI. It’s where all the magic happens, and I get in there early with Jill and take care of the VFX tweaks. Then Steve comes in and works on contrast and color tweaks.By the time Steve gets there, we’re probably 80% of the way there already.
What can fans expect from season two?
Bigger, better visual effects. We definitely pay attention to the fans. They love the graphic novel, so we’re getting more of that into the show.
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.
London-born cinematographer Gavin Finney, BSC, has a wealth of television series and film experience under his belt, including Wolf Hall, The Fear and the upcoming series based on the film of the same name, Hulu’s Four Weddings and a Funeral. One of his most recent projects was the six-episode Amazon series Good Omens, starring Michael Sheen (Aziraphale) and David Tennant (Crowley) as an angel and a demon with a very long history, who are tasked with saving the world. It’s based on the book by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.
Finney was drawn to cinematography by his love of still photography and telling stories. He followed that passion to film school and fell in love with what could be done with moving images.
Let’s find out more about Finney and his work on Good Omens.
How would you describe the look of Good Omens? How did you work with the director/s/producers to achieve the look they wanted?
There is a progression through the story where things get increasingly strange as Adam (who our main characters believe is the antichrist) comes into his powers, and things in his head start manifesting themselves. It is also a 6,000-year-long buddy movie between an angel and a demon! There is Adam’s world — where everything is heightened and strangely perfect — and Aziraphale and Crowley’s world of heaven and hell. At some point, all these worlds intersect. I had to keep a lot of balls in the air in regard to giving each section its own look, but also making sure that when these worlds collide, it still makes sense.
Each era depicted in the series had a different design treatment — obviously in the case of costume and production design — but also in the way we shot each scene and the way they were lit. For instance, Neil Gaiman had always imagined the scene in the church in the blitz in Episode 3 to be an homage to the film noir style of the time, and we lit and photographed it in that style. Ancient Rome was given the patina of an Alma-Tadema oil painting, and we shot Elizabethan London in an exact recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The ‘60s were shot mainly on our Soho set, but redressed with posters from that time, and we changed the lighting to use more neon and used bare bulbs for signage.
I also graded the dailies throughout production on DaVinci Resolve, adding film grain and different looks to different time periods to help anchor where we were in the story. Neil wanted heaven and hell to feel like two parts of the same celestial building, so heaven occupied the best penthouse offices, and hell was stuck in the damp, moldy basement where nothing works properly.
We found a huge empty building for the heaven set that had shiny metal flooring and white walls. I frosted all the windows and lit them from outside using 77 ARRI Skypanels linked to a dimmer desk so we could control the light over the day. We also used extremely wide-angle lenses such as the Zeiss rectilinear 8mm lens to make the space look even bigger. The hell set used a lot of old, slightly greenish fluorescent fittings, some of them flickering on and off. Slimy dark walls and leaking pipes were added into the mix.
For another sequence Neil and Douglas wanted an old-film look. To do this, ARRI Media in London constructed a hand-cranked digital camera out of an old ARRI D21 camera and connected it to an ARRI 435 hand-crank wheel and then to a Codex recorder. This gave us a realistic, organic varis-peed/vari-exposure look. I added a Lensbaby in a deliberately loose mount to emulate film weave and vignetting. In this way I was able to reproduce very accurately the old-style, hand-cranked black and white look of the first days of cinema.
How early did you get involved in the production?
I’d worked with the director Douglas Mackinnon a few times before (on Gentlemen’s Relish and The Flying Scotsman), and I’d wanted to work with him again a number of times but was never available. When I heard he was doing this project, I was extremely keen to get involved, as I loved the book and especially the kind of world that Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett were so good at creating. Fortunately, he asked me to join the team, and I dropped everything I was doing to come on board. I joined the show quite late and had to fly from London to Cape Town on an early scout the day after getting the job!
How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses for this project?
We shot on Leica Summilux Primes and ARRI Alura zooms (15.5-45mm and 45-
250mm) and ARRI Alexa SXT and Alexa Mini cameras outputting UHD 4K files. The Alexa camera is very reliable, easy to work with, looks great and has very low noise in the color channels, which is useful for green/bluescreen work. It can also shoot at 120fps without cutting into the sensor size. We also had to make sure that both cameras and lenses were easily available in Cape Town, where we filmed after the
The Alexa output is also very flexible in the grade, and we knew we were going to be pushing the look in a number of directions in post. We also shot with the Phantom Flex 4K high-speed camera at 1,000fps for some scenes requiring ultra-slo motion, and for one particular sequence, a specially modified ARRI D-21 that could be “hand-cranked” like an old movie camera.
You mentioned using Resolve on set. Is this how you usually work? What benefit did you get from doing this?
We graded the dailies on Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve with our DIT Rich
Simpson. We applied different looks to each period of the story, often using a modified film emulation plugin. It’s very important to me that the dailies look great and that we start to establish a look early on that can inform the grade later.
Rich would bring me a variety of looks each day and we’d pick the one we liked for that day’s work. Rich was also able to export our selected looks and workflow to the South African DIT in Cape Town. This formed the starting point of the online grade done at Molinare on FilmLight Baselight under the hugely capable hands of Gareth Spensley. Gareth had a big influence on the look of the series and did some fantastic work balancing all the different day exteriors and adding some magic.
Any challenging scenes you are particularly proud of?
We had some very big sets and locations to light, and the constantly moving style of photography we employed is always a challenge to light — you have to keep all the fixtures out of shot, but also look after the actors and make sure the tone is right for the scene. A complicated rig was the Soho street set that Michael Ralph designed and built on a disused airbase. This involved four intersecting streets with additional alleyways, many shops and a main set — the bookshop belonging to Aziraphale.
This was a two-story composite set (the interior led directly to the exterior). Not only did we have to execute big crane moves that began looking down at the whole street section and then flew down and “through” the windows of the bookshop and into an interior scene. We also had to rig the set knowing that we were going to burn the whole thing down.
Another challenge was that we were filming in the winter and losing daylight at 3:30pm but needing to shoot day exterior scenes to 8pm or later. My gaffer (Andy Bailey) and I designed a rig that covered the whole set (involving eight cranes, four 18Kw HMIs and six six-meter helium hybrid balloons) so that we could seamlessly continue filming daylight scenes as it got dark and went to full night without losing any time. We also had four 20×20-foot mobile self-lighting greenscreens that we could move about the set to allow for the CGI extensions being added later.
What inspires you artistically? And how do you simultaneously stay on top of advancing technology that serves your vision?
The script inspires me artistically. If I don’t love the story and can’t immediately “see” how it might look, I don’t do it. After that, I’m inspired by real life and the way changing light utterly transforms a scene, be it a landscape or an interior. I also visit art galleries regularly to understand how other people see, imagine and communicate.
What new technology has changed the way you work (looking back over the past few years)?
Obviously, digital cinematography has had a huge impact. I trained in film and spent the first 16 years of my career shooting film exclusively, but I was happy to embrace digital when it came in. I love keeping up with all the advances.
Lighting is also going digital with the advent of LED fixtures with on-board computers. I can now dial any gel color or mix my own at any dimmer level from an app on my phone and send it to dozens of fixtures. There is an incredible array of tools now at our disposal, and I find that very exciting and creatively liberating.
What are some of your best practices or rules you try to follow on each job?
I tend to work on quite long jobs — my last two shows shot for 109 and 105 days, respectively. So keeping to sensible hours is critical. Experienced producers who are concerned with the welfare, health and safety of their crew keep to 10 hours on camera, a one-hour lunch and five-days weeks only. Anything in excess of that results in diminishing returns and an exhausted and demoralized crew.
I also think prep time is incredibly important, and this is another area that’s getting squeezed by inexperienced producers to the detriment of the production. Prep time is a comparatively cheap part of the process but one that reaps huge dividends on the shoot. Being fully prepared, making the right location and set design choices, and having enough to time to choose equipment and crew and work out lighting designs all make for a smooth-running shoot.
Explain your ideal collaboration with the director when setting the look of a project.
This goes back to having enough prep time. The more time there is to visit possible locations and simply talk through all the options for looks, style, movement and general approach the better. I love working with visual directors who can communicate their ideas but who welcome input. I also like being able to ditch the plan on the day and go with something better if it suddenly presents itself. I like being pushed out of my comfort zone and challenged to come up with something wonderful and fresh.
What’s your go-to gear — things you can’t live without?
I always start a new production from scratch, and I like to test everything that’s available and proven in the field. I like to use a selection of equipment — often different cameras and lenses that I feel suit the aesthetic of the show. That said, I think
ARRI Alexa cameras are reliable and flexible and produce very “easy to work with” images.
I’ve been using the Letus Helix Double and Infinity (provided by Riz at Mr Helix) with an Exhauss exoskeleton support vest quite a lot. It’s a very flexible tool that I can operate myself and it produces great results. The Easyrig is also a great back-saver when doing a lot of handheld-work, as the best cameras aren’t getting any lighter.
Apart from that, comfortable footwear and warm, waterproof clothing are essential!
Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years.
This interactive film’s editor talks challenges as well as how Netflix’s Branch Manager tech made it all possible.
By Karen Moltenbrey
In any film, or web/television series for that matter, the final presentation is the culmination of many choices. The director’s, the scriptwriter’s, the editor’s… just about everyone’s but the viewers. However, Netflix changed that with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, a special interactive TV movie during which viewers are prompted to make selections that affect the decision-making and, ultimately, determine the fate of the main character: a young video game programmer.
Alas, while the viewer is tasked with making certain decisions at various intervals in the movie, that certainly did not mean the workload was any less for those on the project. In fact, they had to devise a plethora of paths that could be selected — so many, in fact, that a new tool, called Branch Manager, was devised and integrated into the workflow to maintain order and elegance to what could easily have become a tangled web on so many fronts.
Black Mirror, a British science-fiction series of stand-alone stories, mostly focuses on the consequences of new technologies. It was created by Charlie Brooker, who serves as showrunner along with Annabel Jones. The very first episode debuted in late 2011, and after four “series,” the pair introduced the interactive movie Black Mirror: Bandersnatch on December 28, 2018, in which reality and fantasy merge together for programmer Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) as he adapts a choose-your-own-adventure type novel into a video game. Soon Butler’s life begins to resemble that of the tragic author, and he begins to break down mentally, slipping further down the rabbit hole as he tries to make a seemingly impossible release date for the game.
Within this storyline, viewers are tasked with making certain decisions, each leading them along various paths in the narrative. In addition, there are a number of possible story endings. Viewers have 10 seconds to make decisions or one is made for them. But, once a play-through ends, viewers can go back and make a different choice. According to Netflix, the average viewing time for the movie is 90 minutes.
With 150 minutes of unique footage divided into 250 segments, just about every aspect of production was impacted in some way, perhaps none more so than editing. And that task was given to Tony Kearns, a veteran editor who calls Bandersnatch “the biggest challenge of my editing career” thus far. In terms of production, Kearns estimates the shoot to have been two to three weeks longer than a regular Black Mirror episode, and the edit took five to seven weeks longer than a show of similar duration, lasting 17 weeks.
“When we started working on Bandersnatch, we realized we were doing something that none of us had done before by making an interactive movie — especially one of such complexity,” says Kearns. “I think everyone who had a major role in the production grasped quite early on the need to be very organized and to get our heads around the structure of the script and the segments, as well as the implications of a nonlinear storytelling based on viewers’ choices at every choice point.”
Then, as the group worked through the movie and began getting more footage in the can, “it was obviously clear we had to work out a way of keeping track of things and getting the right results from the edit and how we were constructing it,” he continues. “Having the Branch Manager software [developed in-house by Netflix] enabled us to watch the movie with the various choices, and while making them, seeing the implications for editing — particularly at the end of a segment and when starting another. That’s because you weren’t moving to just one thing; you were going to two things, and both had to work. Some of the segments had six variations, so you had to make sure they all worked. It was a novel experience and very intense. We had to be on our toes all the time.”
Bandersnatch is not Netflix’s first interactive show. In fact, the company has experimented with more simplified interactive, or “branching narrative,” children’s shows since 2017. However, Bandersnatch marked the first time it has done so for live action and for an adult audience — and to resounding success based on audience reaction. On the heels of that success, Netflix has followed up with the live-action interactive show You vs. Wild, putting viewers into the tracks of adventurer Bear Grylls as they make decisions for him while he tries to survive an adventure in the wilderness.
For Kearns, though, Bandersnatch was his first interactive “adventure.” (He is currently editing the Netflix drama The End of the F***ing World, Season 2.) He found the process “very, very different from a linear experience.” Making things even more daunting was the level of interactive complexity that was introduced in Bandersnatch. “We had no idea how it was going to be received. Would people become too frustrated, or would the emotional aspects of the story come through within all the choices?”
One of the biggest considerations was in terms of structure — making sure there weren’t too many recaps and that they balanced out with the story’s complexity, lest viewers give up on the movie. Another big focus was ensuring that the performances within this structure maintained the empathy, or humanity, that would keep viewers engaged and invested in the characters and story.
As a result, the nonlinear process fostered closer communication among the group, with script supervisor Marilyn Kirby and assistant director Jay Author invaluable on set, and a particularly crowded editing room. “That prevented us from going mad while trying to get our heads around things,” says Kearns.
While the editor and director always work closely on projects, at times director David Slade, executive producers Brooker and Jones, producer Russell McLean, assistant editor John Weeks and VFX editor Will Howden were all working together in the cutting room. “Everyone was contributing. It wasn’t that it made things difficult; it was essential and made things more interesting and exciting,” says Kearns.
As Kearns points out, a typical TV show, drama or film has a main cut and that’s it. Not so for Bandersnatch, which had segments that at times had upward of 14 cuts, all of which had to be tracked and organized.
The script was divided into eight sections, and each segment in those sections was assigned a four-character alphanumeric number, along with the corresponding variant. “The workflow was based on keeping track of the segments. We knew by the number which section of the script it belonged to,” Kearns explains. “The workflow was dependent on us keeping a record, spreadsheets. While editing, we had to know which was the latest version, or cut, because they were constantly being reworked. And the latest one went into Branch Manager to be viewed on our laptops. That was an important part of the workflow.”
Using Branch Manager, however, required some technical savvy, and helping the editing team navigate the software was assistant editor John Weeks, who just happened to be an experienced coder and worked his magic with the QuickTime files for each segment and ingested them into Branch Manager. “He was able to be so proactive and communicate with the engineers and developers at Netflix. He really took to this like a duck to water,” Kearns says. “I know it took up a lot of his time, but it ended up being essential for us in terms of making decisions for the edit and structure.”
Kearns would receive footage to a particular segment after each day of filming, do an assembly and then integrate it into the system. Then he would work on further edits as the segment progressed and as the structure was reworked and aspects re-aligned. “The numbering system for each segment was kind of the spine of the process and helped us keep track of what we were doing,” he adds. “You have to be prepared to pull things apart and reassemble them because the experience is different.”
For the movie, Kearns edited on Adobe Premiere, since it allowed him to open more than one sequence at a time. “It was essential to have more than one segment edit up at a time and switch between them just to see how [the segments] flowed,” he says. He also used Adobe Premiere for the VFX work.
The big star in terms of software on the project, though, was Branch Manager, developed by Netflix, which enabled the editing team to play with various options, choice points and timing, to ensure that the viewer was presented with the correct next segment based on the selection he or she had made. “You have a viewer’s experience, rather than looking at it on the edit system,” Kearns says of using the software. “We could view the movie in an interactive way on our laptops. We could see how the segments were working with each other, which was very useful.”
He explains: “We’d basically do a pass and watch it, make notes and adjust the edit accordingly, because sometimes you see things in isolation and think, ‘Oh, they’re working,’ and then using Branch Manager, we were able to see that, well, maybe they aren’t working so well. It was an essential platform. It made the process more fluid and creative, and easy to understand the structural and editorial aspects. We wouldn’t have been able to do this movie without it.”
According to Carla Engelbrecht, Netflix director of product innovation, her team met with Brooker and Jones in May 2017 and introduced them to the interactive storytelling technology, which, at the time, enabled Netflix to tell various interactive stories. A few months later, the pair returned with what would be the beginnings of Bandersnatch, “and we could see this was going to be a much more complex story than what we had previously done for our interactive titles for kids, which contained simple maps with just 15 or so choices, and each often led to maybe three different endings,” she says.
Not so with the plans for Bandersnatch. “The complexity of the stories Charlie [Brooker] wanted to tell, as well as the complexity of the stories adults can tackle in general, was partly what really drove us to create Branch Manager.”
Initially, the Bandersnatch scriptwriters began their process using Twine, an open-source interactive fiction engine, but it was easy to see that would not be sufficient for the planned complexity of Bandersnatch. This prompted Engelbrecht’s group to begin developing its own software. Moreover, production teams were developing their own mapping systems, often using spreadsheets for the interactive content. “We knew we could smooth this out and make the process easier for everyone by creating a common language so we could all be on the same page,” she explains.
As Engelbrecht notes, Branch Manager is a visualization tool that is used throughout the production process, from viewing an outline to creating a flowchart of the story structure, within which pieces of the outline are embedded as a script is formed. During the shoot, rough (or even fine) cuts are added to the software. “Then you can start watching it and experiencing all of the pieces, whether for continuity or choices.”
After a few months, the software was up and running and ready to be migrated over for use on the project. “That become the ongoing tool, as we used it during the rest of scriptwriting through the actual production and even into post production,” she says. “We were sort of beta-testing it on the fly [with Bandersnatch]. As we got script deliveries, we would also get notes on Branch Manager and on other features they wanted us to add.”
Engelbrecht points out that for some in production and post, the new workflow was seamless, involving “just more” — in essence, one big linear file. (She estimates that the final file ingested into the system is approximately five hours long due to the various options.) But for others, like the DP and actors, scenes had to be reshot with slightly different takes, and editing had to track and assemble those different options. “Throughout development and beyond, we had conversations and tried to be mindful of where problems could occur at the various stages. We wanted the software to be as minimally disruptive [to the production workflow] as possible, given what we were doing.”
While Netflix hasn’t specifically quantified the time-savings that Branch Manager brought to Bandersnatch, Engelbrecht notes that it was significant and allows for the telling of much more complex interactive stories.
Listen to Netflix and Black Mirror execs discuss how Branch Manager helped drive Bandersnatch’s production and innovation.
An Interactive Future
Kearns attributes the project’s success to the group carefully considering how it would approach the movie and managing to avoid major “teething” problems by making the right decisions along the way. He notes it was important, as well, to stay on top of what was going on at any given moment in terms of how a particular segments of story. “There were so many dimensions that, mentally, it was really taxing, but exciting as well,” he says. “I had to be able to recalibrate my editing brain to not think of the story overall, but rather from the point of view of individual segments, and keep them coherent.”
Looking to the future, Kearns expects an uptick in interactive projects but believes the key to their success — as evidenced with Bandersnatch — is to develop good scripts that suit the format, rather than trying to do it as a gimmick. He warns: “You really need people in important roles to be at the top of their game. It’s not for the faint of heart. And, you have to be prepared to make those tough decisions, which are made even tougher due to the nature of the interactive structure.”
He adds, “No matter how difficult your next job is, it is going to be so easy after Bandersnatch.”
Meanwhile, Engelbrecht’s team is working on improvements to Branch Manager. “On Bandersnatch, we were building the airplane as we were flying it,” she says. “We’re now moving into Version 2, better integrating the software with external tools to make the work even more seamless. We’re also looking to improve the onboarding experience to make the learning curve shorter, so it’s not like learning a new programming language. We want it to feel more drag-and-drop.”
For instance, the group has made Branch Manager compatible with Final Draft screenwriting software, enabling a script to be imported directly into Netflix’s tool. The team is still working on the interface. “We have a long wish list just pertaining to the visualization experience with the tools. And, we’re working on how to better integrate it on the other end, so when we ingest files into the system, the metadata flows from Branch Manager directly into our [production] system, whereas right now we still have to create a spreadsheet to negotiate part of the process.”
Thanks to Branch Manager, the team on Bandersnatch was able to negotiate a complex web of shifting directions. So, too, for the executives at Netflix, who are able to explore and more easily navigate new directions for content.
Karen Moltenbrey is a veteran VFX and post writer.
Fin Design + Effects, an Australian-based post production house with studios in Melbourne and Sydney, brings its VFX and visual storytelling expertise to the upcoming Netflix film I Am Mother. Directed by Grant Sputore, the post-apocalyptic film stars Hilary Swank, Rose Byrne and Clara Rugaard.
In I Am Mother, a teenage girl (Rugaard) is raised underground by the robot “Mother” (voiced by Byrne), designed to repopulate the earth following an extinction event. But their unique bond is threatened when an inexplicable stranger (Swank) arrives with alarming news.
Working closely with the director, Fin Design’s Sydney office built a CG version of the AI robot Mother to be used interchangeably with the practical robot suit built by New Zealand’s Weta Workshop. Fin was involved from the early stages of the process to help develop the look of Mother, completing extensive design work and testing, which then fed back into the practical suit.
In total, Fin produced over 220 VFX shots, including the creation of a menacing droid army as well as general enhancements to the environments and bunker where this post-apocalyptic story takes place.
According to Fin Australia’s managing director, Chris Spry, “Grant was keen on creating an homage of sorts to old-school science-fiction films and embracing practical filmmaking techniques, so we worked with him to formulate the best approach that would still achieve the wow factor — seamlessly combining CG and practical effects. We created an exact CG copy of the suit, visualizing high-action moments such as running, or big stunt scenes that the suit couldn’t perform in real life, which ultimately accounted for around 80 shots.”
Director Sputore on working with Fin: “They offer suggestions and bust expectations. In particular, they delivered visual effects magic with our CG Mother, one minute having her thunder down bunker corridors and in the next moment speed-folding intricate origami creations. For the most part, the robot at the center of our film was achieved practically. But in those handful of moments where a practical solution wasn’t possible, it was paramount that the audience was not be bumped from the film by a sudden transition to a VFX version of one of our central characters. In the end, even I can’t tell which shots of Mother are CG and which are practical, and, crucially, neither can the audience.”
To create the CG replica, the Fin team paid meticulous attention to detail, ensuring the material, shaders and textures perfectly matched photographs and laser scans of the practical suit. The real challenge, however, was in interpreting the nuances of the movements.
“Precision was key,” explains VFX supervisor Jonathan Dearing. “There are many shots cutting rapidly between the real suit and CG suit, so any inconsistencies would be under a spotlight. It wasn’t just about creating a perfect CG replica but also interpreting the limitations of the suit. CG can actually depict a more seamless movement, but to make it truly identical, we needed to mimic the body language and nuances of the actor in the suit [Luke Hawker]. We did a character study of Luke and rigged it to build a CG version of the suit that could mimic him precisely.”
Fin finessed its robust automation pipeline for this project. Built to ensure greater efficiency, the system allows animators to push their work through lighting and comp at the click of a button. For example, if a shot didn’t have a specific light rig made for it, animators could automatically apply a generic light rig that suits the whole film. This tightly controlled system meant that Fin could have one lighter and one animator working on 200 shots without compromising on quality.
The studio used Autodesk Maya, Side Effects Houdini, Foundry Nuke and Redshift on this project.
I Am Mother premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and is set to stream on Netflix on June 7.
Cobalt Digital was at NAB showing with card-based solutions for openGear frames for 4K and HDR workflows. Cobalt’s 9904-UDX-4K up/down/cross converter and image processor offers an economical SDR-to-HDR and HDR-to-SDR conversion for 4K.
John Stevens, director of engineering at Burbank post house The Foundation, calls it “a swiss army knife” for a post facility.
The 9904-UDX-4K upconverts 12G/6G/3G/HD/SD to either UHD1 3840×2160 square division multiplex (SDM) or two-sample interleave (2SI) quad 3G-SDI-based formats, or it can output SMPTE ST 2082 12G-SDI for single-wire 4K transport. With both 12G-SDI and quad 3G-SDI inputs, the 9904-UDX-4K can downconvert 12G and quad UHD. The 9904-UDX-4K provides an HDMI 2.0 output for economical 4K video monitoring and offers numerous options, including SDR-to-HDR conversion and color correction.
The 9904-UDX-4K-IP model offers the same functionality as the 9904-UDX-4K SDI-based model, plus it also provides dual 10GigE ports to support for the emerging uncompressed video/audio/data over IP standards.
The 9904-UDX-4K-DSP model provides the same functionality as the 9904-UDX-4K model, and additionally also offers a DSP-based platform that supports multiple audio DSP options, including Dolby realtime loudness leveling (automatic loudness processing), Dolby E/D/D+ encode/decode and Linear Acoustic Upmax automatic upmixing. Embedded audio and metadata are properly delayed and re-embedded to match any video processing delay, with full adjustment available for audio/video offset.
The product’s high-density openGear design allows for up to five 9904-UDX-4K cards to be installed in one 2RU openGear frame. Card control/monitoring is available via the DashBoard user interface, integrated HTML5 web interface, SNMP or Cobalt’s RESTful-based Reflex protocol.
“I have been looking for a de-embedder that will work with SMPTE ST-2048 raster sizes — specifically 2048×1080 and 4096×2160,” explains Stevens. “The reason this is important is Netflix deliverables require these rasters. We use all embedded audio and I need to de-embed for monitoring. The same Cobalt Digital card will take almost every SDI input from quad link to 12G and output HDMI. There are other converters that will do some of the same things, but I haven’t seen anything that does what this product does.”
Forget all the trendy shows about updating your home décor or renovating your house. What you really need to do is declutter. And the guru of decluttering is Marie Kondo, the Japanese star of the hot Netflix show Tidying Up With Marie Kondo.
The organizational expert became a global star when her first book, 2014’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” was translated into English, becoming a New York Times bestseller. Her follow-up was 2016’s “Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up.”
Clearly, people everywhere need to declutter, and Kondo’s KonMari Method is the answer for those who have too much stuff. As she herself puts it, “My mission is to organize the world and spark joy in people’s lives. Through this partnership with Netflix, I am excited to spread the KonMari Method to as many people as possible.”
I recently spoke with Tom Curran, the cinematographer of the Kondo show. His extensive credits include Ugly Delicious for Netflix, Fish My City for National Geographic and 9 Months for Facebook, which is hosted by Courteney Cox. Curran has an Emmy on his mantle for ABC Sports’ Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
Let’s start with the really important stuff. Do you have too much clutter? Has Marie’s philosophy helped you?
(Laughs). It has! I think we all have too much stuff. To be honest, I was a little skeptical at first about all this. But as I spent time with her and educated myself, I began to realize just how much there is to it. I think that it particularly applies to the US, where we all have so much and move so quickly.
In her world, you come to a pause and evaluate all of that, and it’s really quite powerful. And if you follow all of her steps, you can’t do it quickly. It forces you to slow down and take stock. My wife is an editor, and we’re both always so busy, but now we take little pockets of time to attack different parts of the house and the clutter we have. It’s been really powerful and helpful to us.
Why do you think her method and this show have resonated so much with people everywhere?
Americans tend to get so busy and locked into routines, and Japan’s culture is very different. I’ve worked there quite a bit, and she brings this whole other quality to the show. She’s very thoughtful and kind. I think the show does a good job of showing that, and you really feel it. An awful lot of current TV can be a little sharp and mean, and there’s something old-fashioned about this, and audiences really respond. She doesn’t pass judgment on people’s messy houses — she just wants to help.
You’re well-known for shooting in extreme conditions and locations all over the world. How did this compare?
It was radically different in some ways. Instead of vast and bleak landscapes, like Antarctica, you’re shooting the interiors of people’s homes in LA. Working with EP Hend Baghdady and showrunner Bianca Barnes-Williams, we set out to redefine how to showcase these homes. We used some of the same principles, like how to incorporate these characters into their environment and weave the house into the storyline. That was our main goal.
What were the challenges of shooting this show?
A big one was keeping ourselves out of the shot, which isn’t so easy in a small space. Also, keeping Marie central to all the storytelling. I’ve done several series before, shooting in people’s homes, like Little People, Big World, where we stayed in one family’s home for many years. With this show the crew was walking into their homes for a far shorter time, and none of them were actors. The were baring their souls.
Cleaning up all their clutter before we arrived was contrary to what the show’s all about, so you’re seeing all the ugly. My background’s in cinéma vérité, and a lot of this was stripping back the way these types of unscripted shows are usually done — with multiple cameras. We did use multiple cameras, but often it was just one, as you’re in a tiny room, where there’s no space for another, and we’re shooting wide since the main character in most stories was the home.
As well as being a DP you’re also the owner of Curran Camera, Inc. Did you supply all the camera gear for this through your company?
Sometimes I supply equipment for a series, sometimes not. It all depends on what the project needs. On this, when Hend, Bianca and I began discussing different camera options, I felt it wasn’t a series we could shoot on prime lenses, but we wanted the look that primes would bring. We ended up working with Fujinon Cabrio Cine Zooms and Canon cameras, which gave us a really filmic look, and we got most of our gear from T-stop Camera Rentals in LA. In fact, the Fujinon Cabrio 14-35mm became the centerpiece of the storytelling in the homes because of its wide lens capture — which was crucial for scenes with closets and small rooms and so on.
I assume all the lighting was a big challenge?
You’re right. It was a massive undertaking because we wanted to follow all the progress in each home. And we didn’t want it to be a dingy, rough-looking show, especially since Marie represented this bright light that’d come into people’s homes and then it would get brighter and brighter. We ended up bringing in all the lighting from the east coast, which was the only place I could source what I needed.
For Marie’s Zen house we had a different lighting package with dozens of small fresnels because it was so calm and stood still. For the homes and all the movement, we used about 80 Flex lights — paper-thin LED lights that are easily dimmable and quick to install and take down. Even though we had a pretty small crew, we were able to achieve a pretty consistent look.
How did the workflow operate? How did you deal with dailies?
Our post supervisor Joe Eckardt was pretty terrific, and I’d spend a lot of time going through all the dailies and then give a big download to the crew once a week. We had six to eight camera operators and three crews with two cameras and additional people some days. We had so much footage, and what ended up on screen is just a fraction of what we shot. We had a lot of cards at the end of every day, and they’d be loaded into the post system, and then a team of 16 editors would start going through it all. Since this was the first season, we were kind of doing it on the fly and trying different techniques to see what worked best.
Color correction and the mix was handled by Margarita Mix. How involved were you in post and the look of the show?
I was very involved, especially early on. Even in the first month or so we started to work on the grade a bit to get some patterns in place; that helped carry us through. We set out to capture a really naturalistic look, and a lot of the homes were very cramped, so we had to keep the wrong lighting look looking wrong, so to speak. I’m pretty happy with what we were able to do. (Margarita Mix’s Troy Smith was the colorist.)
How important is post to you as a DP?
It’s hard to overstate. I’d say it’s not just a big piece of the process, it is the process. When we’re shooting, I only really think about three things; One, what is the story we’re trying to tell? Two, how can we best capture that, particularly with non-actors. How do you create an environment of complete trust where they basically just forget about you? How do we capture Marie doing her thing and not break the flow, since she’s this standup performer? Three, how do we give post what they need? If we’re not giving editorial the right coverage, we’re not doing our job. That last one is the most important to me — since I’m married to an editor, I’m always so aware of post.
The first eight shows aired in January. When is the next season?
We’ve had some light talks about it, and I assume since it’s so popular we’ll do more, but nothing’s finalized yet. I hope we do more. I love this show.
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.
Veteran postproduction executive Leon Silverman was pondering the future when Netflix came calling. The former president of Laser Pacific has spent the last decade building up Disney’s in-house digital post production wing as general manager, but will be taking on what is arguably one of the biggest jobs in the industry — director, post operations and creative services at Netflix.
“To tell you the truth, I wasn’t looking for a new job. I was looking to explore the next chapter of my life,” said Silverman, announcing the news at the HPA Tech Retreat last month.
“The fact is, if there is any organization or group of people anywhere that can bring content creators together with creative technology innovation in service of global storytelling, it is Netflix. This is a real opportunity to work closely with the creative community and with partners to create a future industry worthy of its past.”
That final point is telling. Indeed, Silverman’s move from one of the titans of Hollywood to the powerhouse of digital is symbolic of an industry passing the baton of innovation.
“In some ways, moving to Netflix is a culmination of everything I have been trying to achieve throughout my career,” says Silverman. “It’s about the intersection of technology and creativity, that nexus where art and science meet in order to innovate new forms of storytelling. Netflix has the resources, the vision and the talent to align these goals.”
L-R: Leon Silverman and Sean Cooney
Silverman will report to Sean Cooney, Netflix, director worldwide post production. During his keynote at the HPA Tech Retreat, Cooney introduced Silverman and his new role. He noted that the former president of the HPA (2008-2016) had built and run some of the most cutting-edge facilities on the planet.
“We know that there is work to be done on our part to better serve our talent,” says Cooney. “We were looking for someone with a deep understanding of the industry’s long and storied history of entertainment creation. Someone who knows the importance of working closely with creatives and has a vision for where things are going in the future.”
Netflix global post operation is centered in LA where it employs the majority of its 250 staff and will oversee delivery of 1,000 original pieces of programming this year. But with regional content increasingly important to the growth of the organization, Cooney and Silverman’s tricky task is to streamline core functions like localization, QC, asset management and archive while increasing output from Asia, Latin America and Europe.
“One of the challenges is making sure that the talent we work with feel they are creatively supported even while we operate on a such a large scale,” explains Cooney. “We want to continue to provide a boutique experience even as we expand.”
There’s recognition of the importance to Netflix of its relationship with dozens of third-party post houses, freelance artists and tech vendors.
“Netflix has spent a lot of time cultivating deep relationships in the post community, but as we get more and more involved in upstream production we want to focus on reducing the friction between the creative side of production and the delivery side,” says Silverman. “We need to redesign our internal workflows to really try to take as much as friction out of the process as possible.”
Netflix: Black Mirror – Bandersnatch
While this makes sense from a business point of view, there’s a creative intent too. Bandersnatch, the breakthrough interactive drama from the Black Mirror team, could not have been realized without close collaboration from editorial all the way to user interface design.
“We developed special technology to enable audience interaction but that had to work in concert with our engineering and product teams and with editorial and post teams,” says Cooney.
Silverman likens this collapse of the traditional role of post into the act of production itself as “Post Post.” It’s an industry-wide trend that will enable companies like Netflix to innovate new formats spanning film, TV and immersive media.
“We are at a time and a place where the very notion of a serial progression from content inception to production to editorial then finish to distribution is anachronistic,” says Silverman. “It’s not that post is dead, it’s just that ‘post’ is not ‘after’ anything as much as it has become the underlying fabric of content creation, production and distribution. There are some real opportunities to create a more expansive, elegant and global ability to enable storytellers of all kinds to make stories of all kinds — wherever they are.”
UK-based Adrian Pennington is a professional journalist and editor specializing in the production, the technology and the business of moving image media.
For antiheroes like Frank Castle, the lead character in the Netflix series Marvel’s The Punisher, morality comes in many shades of gray. A vigilante hell-bent on revenge, the Marine veteran used whatever lethal means possible — kidnapping, murder, extortion — to exact revenge on those responsible for the deaths of his family. However, Castle soon found that the criminal conspiracy that set him on this destructive path ran far deeper than initially imagined, and he had to decide whether to embrace his role as the Punisher and help save other victims, or retreat to a more solitude existence.
Alas, in the end, the decision to end the Punisher’s crusade was made not by Frank Castle nor by the criminal element he sought to exact justice upon. Rather, it was made by Netflix, which just recently announced it was cancelling all its live-action Marvel shows. This coming a mere month after Season 2 was released, as many fans are still watching the season’s action play out.
The Punisher is dark and intense, as is the show itself. The overall aesthetic is dim and gritty to match the action, yet rich and beautiful at the same time. This is the world initially envisioned by Marvel and then brought to life on screen late in Season 1 by director of photography Petr Hlinomaz under the direction of showrunner Steve Lightfoot.
The Punisher is based on the Marvel Comics character by the same name, and the story is set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, meaning it shares DNA with the films and other TV shows in the franchise. There is a small family resemblance, but The Punisher is not considered a spin-off of Marvel’s Daredevil, despite the introduction of the Punisher (played by Jon Bernthal) on Season 2 of that series, for which Hlinomaz served as a camera operator and tandem DP. Therefore, there was no intent to match the shows’ cinematic styles.
“The Punisher does not have any special powers like other Marvel characters possess; therefore, I felt that the photographic style should be more realistic, with strong compositions and lighting resembling Marvel’s style,” Hlinomaz says. “It’s its own show. In the Marvel universe, it is not uncommon for characters to go from one show to another and then another after that.”
Establishing the Look
It seems that Hlinomaz followed somewhat in the characters’ footsteps himself, later joining The Punisher crew and taking on the role of DP after the first 10 episodes. He sussed out Lightfoot to find out what he liked as far as framing, look, camera movement and lighting were concerned, and built upon the look of those initial 10 episodes to finish out the last three episodes of Season 1. Then Hlinomaz enhanced that aesthetic on Season 2.
Hlinomaz was assisted by Francis Spieldenner, a Marvel veteran familiar with the property, who in Season 1 and again in Season 2 functioned as A camera/steadicam operator and who shot tandems in addition to serving as DP on two episodes (209 and 211) for Season 2.
“Steve and I had some discussions regarding the color of lighting for certain scenes in Season 2, but he pretty much gave me the freedom of devising the look and camera movement for the show on my own,” recalls Hlinomaz. “I call this look ‘Marvel Noir,’ which is low light and colorful. I never use any normal in the camera color temperature settings (for instance, 3,200K for night and 5,600K for day). I always look for different settings that fit the location and feel of the scene, and build the lighting from there. My approach is very source-oriented, and I do not like cheating in lighting when shooting scenes.”
According to Hlinomaz, the look they were striving for was a mix of Taxi Driver and The Godfather, but darker and more raw. “We primarily used wide-angle lenses to place our characters into our sets and scenery and to see geographically where they are. At times we strived to be inside the actors’ head.” They also used Jason Bourne films as a guideline, “making Jon (the Punisher) and all our characters feel small in the large NYC surroundings,” he adds. “The stunt sequences move fast, continuously and are brutally real.”
In terms of color, Hlinomaz uses very low light with a dark, colorful palette. This compliments New York City, which is colorful, while the city’s multitude of lights and colors “provide a spectacular base for the filming.” The show highlights various location throughout the city. “We felt the look is very fitting for this show, the Punisher being an earnest human being in the beginning of his life, but after joining the force is troubled by his past, PTSD and his family being brutally slaughtered, and in turn, he is brutal and ruthless to ‘bad people,’” explains Hlinomaz.
For instance, in a big fight scene in Season 1, Episode 11 at Micro’s hideout, Hlinomaz showed the top portion of the space to its fullest extent. “It looks dark, mysterious. We used a mixture of top, side and uplighting to make the space look interesting, with lots of color temperature mixes,” he says. “There was a plethora of leftover machinery and huge transformers and generators that were no longer in use, and stairwells that provided a superb backdrop for this sequence.”
For the most part, Hlinomaz has just one day to prep for an episode with the director, and that is often during the technical scout day. “Aside from reading the script and exchanging a few emails, that is the only prep we get,” he says.
During the technical scout, a discussion takes place with the director concerning how the scenes should look and feel. “We discuss lighting and grip, set dressing, blocking, shooting direction, time of day, where we light from, where the sun should be and so on, along with any questions concerning the locations for the next episodes,” he says.
During the scout and rehearsal, Hlinomaz looks for visually stimulating backgrounds, camera angles and shots that will enhance and propel the story line.
When they start shooting the episode, the group rehearses the scene, discusses the most efficient or suitable blocking for the scene and which lenses to use. During the shoot, Hlinomaz takes stills that will be used by the colorists as reference for the lighting, density, color and mood. When the episode is cut and roughly colored, he then will view the episode at the lab (Company 3 in New York) and make notations. Those notes are then provided to the post producer and colorist Tony D’Amore (from Encore) for the final color pass and Lightfoot’s approval.
The group employs HDR, “which, in a way, is hard because you always have to protect for overexposure on sources within the frame,” adds Hlinomaz. In fact, D’Amore has commended Hlinomaz, the directors and Lightfoot with devising unique lighting scenarios that highlighted the HDR aspect of the show in Season 2.
Tools of the Trade The Punisher’s main unit uses two cameras – “we have crew to cover two at all times,” Hlinomaz says. That number increases to three or more as needed for certain sequences, though there are times when just one camera is used for certain scenes and shots.
According to Hlinomaz, Netflix and Marvel only shoot with Red 4K cameras and up. For the duration of The Punisher shoot, the crew only carried four “Panavised” Red cameras. “We shot 4K but frequently used the 5K and 6K settings to go a bit wider with the [Panavision] Primo lenses, or for a tilt and swing lens special look,” he says, adding that he has used Red cameras for the past four years and is still impressed with the color rendering of the Red sensors. Prior to shooting the series, he tested Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses, Leica Summilux lenses, along with Panavision Primos; Hlinomaz chose the Primos for their 3D rendering of the subjects.
The lens set ranged from 10mm to 150mm; there was also an 11:1 zoom lens that was used sparingly. It all depended on the shot. In Episode 13, when Frank finally shoots and kills hitman Billy Russo (aka Jigsaw), Hlinomaz used an older 12mm lens with softer edges to simulate Billy’s state as he is losing a lot of blood. “It looked great, somewhat out of focus along the edges as Frank approaches; then, when Frank steps closer for the kill, he comes into clear focus,” Hlinomaz explains.
In fact, The Punisher was shot using the same type of camera and lenses as the second season of the now-cancelled Marvel/Netflix series Luke Cage (Hlinomaz served as a DP on Luke Cage Season 2 and a camera operator for four episodes of Season 1). In addition to wide-angle lenses, the show also used more naturalistic lighting, similar to The Punisher.
Hlinomaz details another sequence pertaining to his choice of cameras and lenses on The Punisher, whereby he used 10mm and 14mm lenses for a fight scene inside an elevator. Spieldenner, the A cam operator, was inside the elevator with the performers. “We didn’t pull any walls for that, only the ceilings were pulled for one overhead shot when Frank flips a guy over his shoulder,” explains Hlinomaz. “I did not want to pull any walls; when you do, it feels like the camera is on the outside, especially if it’s a small space like that elevator.”
A good portion of the show is filmed outdoors — approximately two-thirds of the series —which always poses an additional challenge due to constantly changing weather conditions, particularly in New York. “When shooting exteriors, you are in the elements. Night exteriors are better than day exteriors because you have more control, unless the day provides constant lighting — full sun or overcast, with no changes. Sometimes it’s impractical or prohibitive to use overhead cover to block out the sun; then you just have to be quick and make smart decisions on how to shoot a scene with backlight on one side and front fill that feels like sunlight on the other, and make it cut and look good together,” explains Hlinomaz.
As he noted earlier, Hlinomaz is a naturalist when it comes to lighting, meaning he uses existing source-driven lighting. “I like simplicity. I use practicals, sun and existing light to give and drive our light direction,” he further adds. “We use every possible light, from big HMIs all the way down to the smallest battery-driven LED lights. It all depends on a given shot, location, sources and where the natural or existing light is coming from. On the other hand, sometimes it is just a bounce card for a little fill or nothing extra to make the shot look great.”
All The Punisher sets, meanwhile, have hard ceilings. “That means with our use of lower camera angles and wide lenses, we are seeing everything, including the ceilings, and are not pulling bits of ceilings and hanging any lights up from the grid. All lighting is crafted from the floor, driven by sources, practicals, floor bounces, windows and so on,” says Hlinomaz. “My feeling is that this way, the finished product looks better and more natural.”
Most of Season 1’s crew returned for Season 2, so they were familiar with the dark and gritty style, which made things easier on Hlinomaz. The season begins with the Punisher somewhere in the Midwest before agent Madani brings Frank back to New York, although all the filming took place throughout New York.
One of the more challenging sequences this season, according to Hlinomaz, was an ambulance chase that was filmed in Albany, New York. For the shoot, they used a 30-foot Louma crane and Edge arm from Action Camera cars, and three to four Red cameras. For the actual ambulance drop, they placed four additional cameras. “We had to shoot many different passes with stunts as well as the actors, in addition to the Edge arm pass. It was quite a bit of work,” he says. Of course, it didn’t help that when they arrived in Albany to start filming, they encountered a rain delay, but “we used the time to set up the car and ambulance rigs and plan to the last detail how to approach our remaining days there.” For the ambulance interior, they shot on a greenscreen stage with two ambulances — one on a shaky drive simulation rig and the other mounted 20 feet or so high on a teeter rig that simulated the drop of the highway as it tilted forward until it was pointing straight to the ground.
“If I remember correctly, we spent six days total on that sequence,” says Hlinomaz.
The second season of The Punisher was hard work, but a fun and rewarding experience, Hlinomaz contends. “It was great to be surrounded from top to bottom with people working on this show who wanted to be there 100 percent, and that dedication and our hard work is evident, I believe, in the finished season,” he adds.
As Hlinomaz waited for word on Season 3 of The Punisher, he lent his talents to Jessica Jones, also set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and sadly also receiving the same ultimate fate — as Hlinomaz stepped in to help shoot Episode 305, with the new Red DSMC2 Gemini 5K S35 camera. “I had a great experience there and loved the new camera. I am looking forward to using it on my next project,” he adds.
Karen Moltenbrey is a veteran VFX and post writer.
The writing and directing duo of Joel and Ethan Coen have taken on the American Western with their new Netflix film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. This offering features six different vignettes that follow outlaws and settlers on the American frontier.
It stars the Coen brothers’ favorite Tim Blake Nelson as Buster, along with Liam Neeson, James Franco, Brenden Gleeson and many other familiar faces, even Tom Waits! It’s got dark humor and a ton of Coen quirkiness.
Alex Lemke (middle) on set with the Coen brothers.
For their visual effects needs, the filmmakers turned to New York-based East Side Effects co-founders and VFX supervisors Alexander Lemke and Michael Huber to help make things look authentic.
We reached out to visual effects supervisors Lemke and Huber to find out more about their process on the film and how they worked with these acclaimed filmmakers. East Side Effects created two-thirds of the visual effects in-house, while other houses, such as The Mill and Method, provided shots as well.
How many VFX shots were there in total? Alexander Lemke: In the end, 704 shots had digital effects in them. This has to be a new record for the Coens. Joel at one point jokingly called it their “Marvel movie.”
How early did you get involved? Can you talk about that process? Michael Huber: Alex and myself were first approached in January 2017 and had our first meetings shortly thereafter. We went through the script with the Coens and designed what we call a “VFX bible,” which outlined how we thought certain effects could be achieved. We then started collecting references from other films or real-life footage.
Did you do previs? Lemke: The Coens have been doing movies for so long in their own way that previs never really became an issue. For the Indian battles, we tried to interest them in the Ncam virtual camera system in combination with pre-generated assets, but that is not their way of doing a film.
The whole project was storyboarded by J. Todd Anderson, who has been their go-to storyboard guy since Raising Arizona. These storyboards gave a pretty good indication of what to expect, but there were still a lot of changes due to the nature of the project, such as weather and shooting with animals.
What were some of the challenges of the process and can you talk about creating the digital characters that were needed? Huber: Every story had its own challenge, ranging from straightforward paintouts and continuity fixes to CG animals and complex head replacements using motion control technology. In order to keep the work as close to the directors as possible, we assembled a group of artists to serve as an extended in-house team, creating the majority of shots while also acting as a hub for external vendor work.
In addition, a color workflow using ACES and FilmLight Baselight was established to match VFX shots seamlessly to the dailies look established by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and senior colorist Peter Doyle. All VFX pulls were handled in-house.
Lemke: The Coens like to keep things in-camera as much as possible, so animals like the owl in “All Gold Canyon” or the dog in “Gal” were real. Very early on it was clear that some horse falls wouldn’t be possible as a practical stunt, so Joel and Ethan had a reel compiled with various digital horse stunts — including the “Battle of the Bastards” from Game of Thrones, which was done by Iloura (now Method). We liked that so much that we decided to just go for it and reach out to these guys, and we were thrilled when we got them on board for this. They did the “dog-hole!” horse falls in the “The Gal Who Got Rattled” segment, as well as the carriage horses in “Mortal Remains.”
Huber: For the deer in “All Gold Canyon,” the long-time plan was to shoot a real deer against bluescreen, but it became clear that we might not get the very specific actions Joel and Ethan wanted to see. They were constantly referring to the opening of Shane, which has this great shot of the titular character appearing through the antlers of a deer. So, it became more and more clear it would have to be a digital solution, and we were very happy to get The Mill in New York to work on that for us. Eventually, they would also handle all the other critters in the opening sequence.
Can you talk about Meal Ticket’s “artist” character, who is missing limbs? Lemke: The “Wingless Thrush” — as he is referred to on a poster in the film — was a combined effort of the art department, special effects, costume design, VFX and, of course, actor Harry Melling’s incredible stamina. He was performing this poetry while standing in a hole in the ground with his hands behind his back, and went for it take after take, sometimes in the freezing cold.
Huber: It was clear that 98% of all shots would be painting out his arms and legs, so SFX supervisor Steve Cremin had to devise a way to cut holes into the set and his chair to make it appear he was resting on his stumps. Our costume designer, Mary Zophres, had the great idea of having him wear a regular shirt where the longs sleeves were just folded up, which helped with hiding his arms. He wasn’t wearing any blue garment, just black, which helped with getting any unnecessary color spill in the set.
Alex was on set to make sure we would shoot clean plates after each setup. Luckily, the Coen brothers’ approach to these shots was really focusing on Harry’s performance in long locked-off takes, so we didn’t have to deal with a lot of camera motion. We also helped Harry’s look by warping his shoulders closer to his body in some shots.
Was there a particular scene with this character that was most challenging or that you are most proud of? Lemke: While most of the paintout shots were pretty straightforward — we just had to deal with the sheer amount of shots and edit changes — the most challenging parts are when Liam Neeson carries Harry in a backpack up the stairs in a brothel. He then puts him on the ground and eventually turns him away from the “action” that is about to happen.
We talked about different approaches early on. At some point, a rig was considered to help with him being carried up the stairs, but this would have meant an enormous amount of paint work, not to mention the setup time on a very tight shooting schedule. A CG head might have worked for the stairs, but for the long close up shots of Harry — both over a minute long, and only with very subtle facial expressions — it would have been cost prohibitive and maybe not successful in the end. So a head replacement seemed like the best solution, which comes with its own set of problems. In our case, shooting a head element of Harry that would match exactly what the dummy on Liam’s back and on the ground was doing in the production plates.
We came up with a very elaborate set up, where we would track the backpack and a dummy in the live-action photography in 3D Equalizer. We then reengineered this data into Kuper move files that would drive a motion control motion base combo.
Basically, Harry would sit on a computerized motion base that would do the turning motion so he could react to being pushed around. This happened while the motion control camera would take care of all the translations. This also meant our DP Bruno had to create animated lighting for the staircase shot to make the head element really sit in the plate.
We worked with Pacific Motion for the motion control. Mike Leben was our operator. For the NAC effects for the motion base, Nic Nicholson took care of this. Special thanks goes out to Christoph Gaudl for his camera and object tracking, Stefan Galleithner for taking on the task of converting all that data into something the camera and base would understand, and Kelly Chang and Mike Viscione for on-set Maya support.
Of course, you only get an element that works 80% of the way — the rest was laborious compositing work. Since we put the motion base to its speed limits on the staircase shot, we actually had to shoot it half speed and then speed it up in post. This meant a lot of warping/tracking was needed to make sure there was no slippage.
The dummy we used for the live-action photography didn’t have any breathing movement in it, so we used parts of Harry’s bluescreen plates as a guideline of how his chest should move. These tricky tasks were expertly performed mainly by Danica Parry, Euna Kho and Sabrina Tenore.
Can you talk about how valuable it is being on set? Huber: It is just valuable to be on set when the call sheet calls for a greenscreen, while we really need a bluescreen! But joking aside, Joel and Ethan were very happy to have someone there all the time during the main shoot in case something came up, which happened a lot because we were shooting outdoors so much and we were dependent on the weather.
For the opening shot of Buster riding through Monument Valley, they were thinking of a very specific view — something they had seen on a picture on the Internet. Through Google Maps and research, Alex was able to find out the exact location that picture was taken. So, on a weekend when we weren’t shooting, he packed up his family and drove up to the Valley to shoot photographs that would serve as the basis for the matte painting for the first shot of the film — instead of going there with a whole crew.
Another instance being on set helped would be the scene with Tom Waits in the tree — the backgrounds for these bluescreen shots were a mixture of B camera and Alex’s location photography while in Colorado. Same goes for the owl tree backgrounds.
What tools did East Side use on the film? Huber: For software we called on Foundry Nuke (X & Studio), Boris FX Mocha Pro and Side Effects Houdini. For hardware we used HP and SuperMicro workstations running Linux. There was also proprietary software such as using Houdini digital assets for blood simulations.
We were using Autodesk Shotgun with a proprietary connection to Nuke that handled all our artist interaction and versioning, including automatically applying the correct Baselight grade when creating a version. This also allowed us to use the RV-Shotgun integration for reviewing.
Can you talk about the turnaround times and deadlines? Lemke: Working on a Coen brothers film means you don’t have a lot of things you normally have to deal with — studio screenings, trailers, and such. At the same time, they insisted on working through the stories chronologically, so that meant that the later segments would come in late in the schedule. But, it is always a great experience working with filmmakers who have a clear vision and know what they are doing.
Since it first premiered back in 2013, Netflix’s oh-so-timely political thriller House of Cards has been a big hit, delivering provocative, twisty plot lines peppered with surprises and shocks. It has also racked up dozens of awards, including 33 Primetime Emmys and fistfuls of Golden Globes along the way. But the biggest shocker of all was probably the real-life firing of star Kevin Spacey last year by Netflix, following allegations of sexual misconduct.
Writer Iain Blair (left) with Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese.
With Spacey — and power-hungry Frank Underwood — suddenly MIA, the upside is that girls now rule the world. This is great news for Robin Wright fans as the Golden Globe-winner and Emmy-nominee returns as President of the United States in Season 6, the final season of the series, which is now streaming on Netflix.
The show has added Oscar-nominees Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear to the cast, in addition to American Horror Story-alum Cody Fern. They join existing players Michael Kelly, Jayne Atkinson, Patricia Clarkson, Constance Zimmer, Derek Cecil, Campbell Scott and Boris McGiver.
Behind the scenes, Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese continue as showrunners for Season 6, and serve as executive producers along with Robin Wright, David Fincher, Joshua Donen, Dana Brunetti, Eric Roth, Michael Dobbs and Andrew Davies. Created for television by Beau Willimon, House of Cards is produced by Donen/Fincher/Roth and Trigger Street Productions, in association with Media Rights Capital for Netflix.
I recently spoke with Gibson and Pugliese about making the show and awards season.
When Kevin Spacey was fired, and you lost the show’s star, did you consider ending the series early? Frank Pugliese: Yes, it was a huge thing, a big shock, and I think it had to be considered.
Melissa James Gibson: Everything was on the table as we wanted to make sure our way forward was the right one. We needed to regroup and carefully go through every possibility.
Pugliese: But pretty quickly we figured out that the best response was to try and tell the story without Francis on screen. So within a day or so, we were back at work, writing out ideas and discussing how to do it.
What can you tell us about the new season? Robin has said that it’ll be “a real shocker.” Pugliese: Our hope is that it’s shocking but also feels inevitable at the same time, and we’re trying our best to give the show its most satisfying ending that has integrity and also serves a story that’s been told over many years.
Gibson: We tried to forge a brave way forward that would also be a reckoning for all of the characters We both knew that this season “reckoning” would be a key word, along with “complicity.”
Robin’s directed quite a few episodes over the years. Is it true she also directed the big finale? Pugliese: Yes, and it seemed so appropriate. Remember, Season 5 ended with her saying, “My turn,” so even as we began exploring what to do this season, it seemed unacceptable to not have that examined and dramatized. It just seemed right that she would direct the last one, and the last scene of the whole story was actually done on the last day of shooting. So her as the lead and also directing just seemed right.
Gibson: It kind of all led up to that, and the focus was always going to be on her in Season 6.
Pugliese: So much had been set up at the end of the last season, and we’d talked so much during the planning of that season about how Season 6 would go, and about who really owns the White House. Pile on the power. And Francis says he’ll own the White House by owning her. No matter what, it was going to be all about her and the powers that be trying to own her — one of them being her husband.
Maybe it’s a very prescient arc, and America will elect a woman president next? Gibson: Wouldn’t that be nice!
Do you like being a showrunners? Gibson: We both love it. We came on as writers on Season 3 when Beau hired us, worked as writers on Season 4, and then began showrunning last season.
Pugliese: I really like it.
Gibson: It’s because I feel that a lot of the challenges Claire faces this season are the same ones you face as a showrunner (laughs). When you’re making decisions and setting priorities it says a lot about what you value.
What are the big challenges of showrunning? Gibson: I’d say establishing all the priorities, both micro and macro.
Pugliese: We work very closely, and it probably goes back to our days in theater, but for me it’s establishing a collective communal work atmosphere. Your hope is that you can delegate a lot of the responsibility and then do the best work possible. If you can do that successfully, then the show’s successful. Helping establish all that really helped us with the new season, because in dealing with [the Spacey firing] we all felt that the best way to deal with it was to get to work and focus on telling the best story we could. Everyone agreed on that.
Where do you post? Pugliese: We shoot in Baltimore, but all the post is done here in LA, and we do remote sessions using Pix.
Is that weird? Pugliese: It’s weird until it’s not weird. If you think about it, it is, but you quickly get used to it and we can go over sequences in great detail.
Do you like the post process? Gibson: We love it. It’s the third part of the entire storytelling, and I’ve learned so much dealing with post and editing and visual effects and so on. Our post supervisor, Hameed Shaukat, has been with the show since the very start.
You have several editors, I assume because of the time factor. How does that work? Gibson: We have about four at any one time, and many have been with the show for years, and they’ll hop-scotch around. We give notes, they’ll re-cut stuff, and we’ll have robust conversations about scenes and the tone and pacing and so on.
Pugliese: Some days we’ll get on the phone right away and they’ll cut some things to see if they’re even working or not. There’s a lot of back and forth.
You have a big cast and a lot of stuff going on in each episode. What are the big editing challenges? Gibson: It’s always about trying to balance the various competing elements and characters, and then this season we have a number of new characters and cast members, like Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear, so it’s all about calibration and the rhythm.
Pugliese: We work really hard to get the scripts in the best place possible, and we have really intensive and extensive tonal meetings where we go line by line and explain the intent to everyone involved. So if everyone’s on the same page when it comes to tone and intent, then they can go off and just do their jobs. That means less work for us, so we can then just focus on the overall storyline.
Gibson: It helps that there was a rigorous vocabulary established right at the start by David Fincher, so we had a great template to follow.
Pugliese: It also helped us in knowing when it was time to move away from that.
This show has a great score and great sound design. Talk about the importance of sound and music. Gibson: It’s a vital part, and like Hameed, composer Jeff Beal has been with the show since day one, and he wrote that famous theme. He knows exactly what is needed. We also have a great sound team, with guys like supervising sound editor Jeremy Molod and sound designer Ren Klyce, who’ve also been there since day one. It’s a pretty well-oiled machine by now.
How important are awards to a show like this? Pugliese: I get so excited when I see people in the show get recognized by their peers. Everyone works so hard.
There’s been a lot of talk about lack of opportunity for women in movies. Are things better in TV? Gibson: It’s so good that people are now talking openly about the problems, and I think the industry as a whole is trying to make adjustments and make sure there are more women in the room, more people of color. But it’s not just that it’s the right thing to do ethically — it’s also about being good for the work. It needs to change.
Pugliese: Yes, it does need to change, and a correction is long overdue.
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.
When Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt first premiered back in 2015, the sitcom seemed quite shocking — and not just because NBC sold it off to Netflix so quickly. While at the streaming service, it has been a big hit with audiences and critics alike, racking up dozens of industry awards and nominations, including 18 Primetime Emmy nominations.
Created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, the sunny comedy with a dark premise stars Ellie Kemper as the title character. She moves to New York City after being rescued from an underground bunker where she and three other women were held captive for 15 years by a doomsday cult leader (Jon Hamm).
Alone in the Big Apple, and armed only with her unbreakable sense of optimism, Kimmy soon forges a new life that includes her colorful landlady Lillian Kaushtupper (Carol Kane), her struggling actor roommate (Tituss Burgess) and her socialite employer (Jane Krakowski). The strong cast also boasts recurring talent and A-list guests, such as Tina Fey, Martin Short, Fred Armisen, Jeff Goldblum, Amy Sedaris and Lisa Kudrow.
Last year Netflix renewed the show for a final season, with the first six episodes premiering in May 2018.
I recently spoke with Carlock about making the show, the Emmys and the planned movie version.
When Kimmy Schmidt first came out, its premise seemed bizarre and shocking — a young woman who was kidnapped, abused and held captive in an underground bunker. But looking back today, it seems ahead of its time.
Unfortunately, I think you’re right. At the time we felt strongly it was a way to get people talking about things and issues they didn’t necessarily want to talk about, such as how women are really treated in this society. And with the #MeToo movement it’s more timely than ever. Tina would say, “It keeps happening, it’s in the news all the time, and at this level,” and it’s really sad that it’s true. The last two seasons we’ve been dealing more and more with issues like this, and now people really are talking about sexual harassment in the workplace. But we have the added burden of also trying to make it funny.
Is Season 4 definitely the final one?
I think so, and the second half will stream sometime early next year. In the meantime, we’re talking about the movie deal that Netflix wants and what that will entail. We kind of thought about it as, “Let’s give our characters endings since there’s still so much to talk about,” but you also have to bear in mind the topicality of it all in a year or so. So it gave us the luxury of being able to finish the show in a way that felt right, and Season 5 — the second half of Season 4 — will satisfy fans, I think. We’re also very happy that Netflix is so enthusiastic about doing it this way.
Do you like being a showrunner?
I do, and I love it better than not being in charge. The beauty of TV is that, unlike in movies, and for a variety of reasons, writers get to be in charge. I love the fact that when you’re a showrunner, you get to learn so much about everything, including all the post production. You work with all these really skilled artisans and get to oversee the entire process from start to finish, including picking out what shade of blue the dress should be (laughs). It’s much better than watching other people make all the key decisions.
What are the big challenges of showrunning?
The big one is trying to think outside of the writer’s room. You have all that ambition on the page, but then you have to deal with the reality of actually shooting it and making it work. It’s a lot easier to type it than execute it. Then you have to be really objective about what’s working and what isn’t, because you fall in love with what you write. So you have to realize, “Maybe this needs a little insert, or more jokes here to get the point across,” and you have to put that producer hat on — and that can be really tricky. It’s a challenge for sure, but we’ve also been fortunate in having a great crew that’s been with us a while, so there’s that shorthand, and things move quickly on the set and we get a lot done.
Where do you shoot and post? We do the shooting at the Broadway Stages in Brooklyn, and have all the editing setup there as well. Then we have Tina’s production offices at Columbus Circle, and we do all the sound at Sync Sound in midtown Manhattan.
Do you like the post process?
I love post and the whole process of seeing a script come alive as you edit. You find ways of telling the story that you maybe didn’t expect.
You have a big cast and a lot of stuff going on in each episode. What are the big editing challenges?
One of the big creative challenges of a single-camera show — which ultimately also gives you so many more tools in writing, shooting and editing — is that you don’t get to see rehearsals. So one of the reasons our episodes are going into post and often coming out of post so stuffed with story and jokes is that we don’t get so many opportunities to see exactly what’s making the scene tick. We’re hitting the story, hitting the jokes and hitting the characters too many times, and a lot of the challenge is scraping all those away. Our episodes come in around the mid-30s often, and we think they live and play best around 26 or 27 minutes. That’s where I think the sweet spot is. So you can feel, “Oh, I love that joke,” but the hard reality is that the scene plays so much better without it.
Talk about the importance of sound and music.
I think it’s so important in comedy, and it can totally change the feel of a scene. Jeff Richmond — Tina’s husband and one of our producers — does all the music. He’s also fantastic in the edit. So if I’m not available or Tina isn’t, then he or Sam Means, another producer, can take our edit notes and interpret them. We’ll type up 15 pages on a Director’s Cut, and then we hone the show until it’s a lock for the network, and we go through it all frame by frame.
How important are the Emmys to you and a show like this?
Increasingly now, with all the noise and static out there, and so many other good shows, it’s really important. I think it helps cut through the clutter. When you’re working hard on a show like this, with your head down all the time, you don’t really know where you stand sometimes. So to be nominated by your peers means a lot. (Laughs) I wish it didn’t, but we’re small-minded people who only really care about other people’s opinions.
What’s the latest on talk about a movie? Will it be a theatrical release or just Netflix, or both?
That’s a great question. Who knows? We’re in the middle of trying to figure out the budget. I imagined it would be just streaming, but maybe it will be theatrical as well. One thing’s for sure. We won’t be one of those TV shows that gets a whole new cast for the movie version. Lightning struck with our first cast, and we’re not looking to replace anyone.
There’s been a lot of talk about lack of opportunity for women in movies. Are things better in TV?
I can only speak for us, but we like shows where there’s a lot of diversity and different voices, and sometimes we step in a bear trap we didn’t even know was there because we’re trying to write for so many different voices. For us, it just makes sense to embrace diversity, but it’s such a complicated and thorny issue. I’m just glad we’re talking about it more now. It’s what interests us. When Tina and I first sat down to write this, we didn’t want to do something salacious and exploitive. We were thinking about a really startling way to get people talking about gender and class. It’s been a fun challenge.
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.
There is a world of difference between Netflix’s ambitious science-fiction series Lost in Space (recently renewed for another 10 episodes) and the beloved but rather low-tech, tongue-in-cheek 1960s show most fondly remembered for the repartee between persnickety Dr. Smith and the rather tinny-looking Robot. This series, starring Molly Parker, Toby Stevens and Parker Posey (in a very different take on Dr. Smith), is a very modern, VFX-intensive adventure show with more deeply wrought characters and elaborate action sequences.
Colorist Siggy Ferstl of Company 3 devoted a significant amount of his time and creative energy to the 10-episode release over the five-and-a-half-month period the group of 10 episodes was in the facility. While Netflix’s approach to dropping all 10 episodes at once, rather than the traditional series schedule of an episode a week, fuels excitement and binge-watching among viewers, it also requires a different kind of workflow, with cross-boarded shoots across multiple episodes and different parts of episodes coming out of editorial for color grading throughout the story arc. “We started on episode one,” Ferstl explains, “but then we’d get three and portions of six and back to four, and so on.”
Additionally, the series was mastered both for Dolby Vision HDR and Rec.709, which added additional facets to the grading process over shows delivered exclusively for Rec.709.
Ferstl’s grading theater also served as a hub where the filmmakers, including co-producer Scott Schofield, executive producer Zack Estrin and VFX supervisor Jabbar Raisani could see iterations of the many effects sequences as they came in from vendors (Cinesite, Important Looking Pirates and Image Engine, among others).
Ferstl himself made use of some new tools within Resolve to create a number of effects that might once have been sent out of house or completed during the online conform. “The process was layered and very collaborative,” says Ferstl. “That is always a positive thing when it happens but it was particularly important because of this series’ complexity.”
Shot by Sam McCurdy, the show’s aesthetic was designed, “to have a richness and realness to the look,” Ferstl explains. “It’s a family show but it doesn’t have that vibrant and saturated style you might associate with that. It has a more sophisticated kind of look.”
One significant alteration to the look involves changes to the environment of the planet onto which the characters crash land. The filmmakers wanted the exteriors to look less Earthlike with foliage a bit reddish, less verdant than the actual locations. The visual effects companies handled some of the more pronounced changes, especially as the look becomes more extreme in later episodes, but for a significant amount of this work, Ferstl was able to affect the look in his grading sessions — something that until recently would likely not have been achievable.
Ferstl, who has always sought out and embraced new technology to help him do his job, made use of some features that were then brand new to Resolve 14. In the case of the planet’s foliage, he made use of the Color Compressor tool within the OpenFX tab on the color corrector. “This allowed me take a range of colors and collapse that into a single vector of color,” he explains. “This lets you take your selected range of colors, say yellows and greens in this case, and compress them in terms of hue, saturation and luminance.” Sometimes touted as a tool to give colorists more ability to even out flesh tones, Ferstl applied the tool to the foliage and compressed the many shades of green into a narrower range prior to shifting the resulting colors to the more orange look.
“With foliage you have light greens and darker greens and many different ranges within the color green,” Ferstl explains. “If we’d just isolated those ranges and turned them orange individually, it wouldn’t give us the same feel. But by limiting the range and latitude of those greens in the Color Compressor and then changing the hue we were able to get much more desirable results.” Of course, Ferstl also used multiple keys and windows to isolate the foliage that needed to change from the elements of the scenes that didn’t.
He also made use of the Camera Shake function, which was particularly useful in a scene in the second episode in which an extremely heavy storm of sharp hail-like objects hits the planet, endangering many characters. The storm itself was created at the VFX houses, but the additional effect of camera shake on top of that was introduced and fine-tuned in the grade. “I suggested that we could add the vibration, and it worked very well,” he recalls. By doing the work during color grading sessions, Ferstl and the filmmakers in the session could see that effect as it was being created, in context and on the big screen, and could fine-tune the “camera movement” right then and there.
Fortunately, the colorist notes, the production afforded the time to go back and revise color decisions as more episodes came into Company 3. “The environment of the planet changes throughout. But we weren’t coloring episodes one after the other. It was really like working on a 10-hour feature.
“If we start at episode one and jump to episode six,” Ferstl notes, “exactly how much should the environment have changed in-between? So it was a process of estimating where the look should land but knowing we could go back and refine those decisions if it proved necessary once we had the surrounding episodes for context.”
Dolby Vision Workflow
As most people reading this know, mastering in high dynamic range (Dolby Vision in this case) opens up the possibility of working within a significantly expanded contrast range and wider color gamut over Rec.709 standard for traditional HD. Lost in Space was mastered concurrently for both, which required Ferstl to use Dolby’s workflow. And this involves making all corrections for the HDR version and then allowing the Dolby hardware/software to analyze the images to bring them into the Rec.709 space for the colorist to do a standard-def pass.
Ferstl, who worked with two Sony X-300 monitors, one calibrated for Rec.709 and the other for HDR, explains, “Everyone is used to looking at Rec. 709. Most viewers today will see the show in Rec.709 and that’s really what the clients are most concerned with. At some point, if HDR becomes the dominant way people watch television, then that will probably change. But we had to make corrections in HDR and then wait for the analysis to show us what the revised image looked like for standard dynamic range.”
He elaborates that while the Dolby Vision spec allows the brightest whites to read at 4000 nits, he and the filmmakers preferred to limit that to 1000 nits. “If you let highlights go much further than we did,” he says, “some things can become hard to watch. They become so bright that visual fatigue sets in after too long. So we’d sometimes take the brightest portions of the frame and slightly clamp them,” he says of the technique of holding the brightest areas of the frame to levels below the maximum the spec allows.
“Sometimes HDR can be challenging to work with and sometimes it can be amazing,” he allows. Take the vast vistas and snowcapped mountains we first see when the family starts exploring the planet. “You have so much more detail in the snow and an amazing range in the highlights than you could ever display in Rec.709,” he says.
“In HDR, the show conveys the power and majesty of these vast spaces beyond what viewers are used to seeing. There are quite a few sections that lend themselves to HDR,” he continues. But as with all such tools, it’s not always appropriate to the story to use the extremes of that dynamic range. Some highlights in HDR can pull the viewer’s attention to a portion of the frame in a way that simply can’t be replicated in Rec. 709 and, likewise, a bright highlight from a practical or a reflection in HDR can completely overpower an image that tells the story perfectly in standard dynamic range. “The tools can re-map an image mathematically,” Ferstl notes, “but it still requires artists to interpret an image’s meaning and feel from one space to the other.”
That brings up another question: How close do you want the HDR and the Rec.709 to look to each other when they can look very different? Overall, the conclusion of all involved on the series was to constrain the levels in the HDR pass a bit in order to keep the two versions in the same ballpark aesthetically. “The more you let the highlights go in HDR,” he explains, “the harder it is to compress all that information for the 100-nit version. If you look at scenes with the characters in space suits, for example, they have these small lights that are part of their helmets and if you just let those go in HDR, those lights become so distracting that it becomes hard to look at the people’s faces.”
Such decisions were made in the grading theater on a case by case basis. “It’s not like we looked at a waveform monitor and just said, ‘let’s clamp everything above this level,’” he explains, “it was ultimately about the feeling we’d get from each shot.”
Netflix’s Lost in Space series, a remake of the 1965 television show, is a playground for sound. In the first two episodes alone, the series introduces at least five unique environments, including an alien planet, a whole world of new tech — from wristband communication systems to medical analysis devices — new modes of transportation, an organic-based robot lifeform and its correlating technologies, a massive explosion in space and so much more.
It was a mission not easily undertaken, but if anyone could manage it, it was four-time Emmy Award-winning supervising sound editor Benjamin Cook of 424 Post in Culver City. He’s led the sound teams on series like Starz’s Black Sails, Counterpart and Magic City, as well as HBO’s The Pacific, Rome and Deadwood, to name a few.
Lost in Space was a reunion of sorts for members of the Black Sails post sound team. Making the jump from pirate ships to spaceships were sound effects editors Jeffrey Pitts, Shaughnessy Hare, Charles Maynes, Hector Gika and Trevor Metz; Foley artists Jeffrey Wilhoit and Dylan Tuomy-Wilhoit; Foley mixer Brett Voss; and re-recording mixers Onnalee Blank and Mathew Waters.
“I really enjoyed the crew on Lost in Space. I had great editors and mixers — really super-creative, top-notch people,” says Cook, who also had help from co-supervising sound editor Branden Spencer. “Sound effects-wise there was an enormous amount of elements to create and record. Everyone involved contributed. You’re establishing a lot of sounds in those first two episodes that are carried on throughout the rest of the season.”
So where does one begin on such a sound-intensive show? The initial focus was on the soundscapes, such as the sound of the alien planet’s different biomes, and the sound of different areas on the ships. “Before I saw any visuals, the showrunners wanted me to send them some ‘alien planet sounds,’ but there is a huge difference between Mars and Dagobah,” explains Cook. “After talking with them for a bit, we narrowed down some areas to focus on, like the glacier, the badlands and the forest area.”
For the forest area, Cook began by finding interesting snippets of animal, bird and insect recordings, like a single chirp or little song phrase that he could treat with pitching or other processing to create something new. Then he took those new sounds and positioned them in the sound field to build up beds of creatures to populate the alien forest. In that initial creation phase, Cook designed several tracks, which he could use for the rest of the season. “The show itself was shot in Canada, so that was one of the things they were fighting against — the showrunners were pretty conscious of not making the crash planet sound too Earthly. They really wanted it to sound alien.”
Another huge aspect of the series’ sound is the communication systems. The characters talk to each other through the headsets in their spacesuit helmets, and through wristband communications. Each family has their own personal ship, called a Jupiter, which can contact other Jupiter ships through shortwave radios. They use the same radios to communicate with their all-terrain vehicles called rovers. Cook notes these ham radios had an intentional retro feel. The Jupiters can send/receive long-distance transmissions from the planet’s surface to the main ship, called Resolute, in space. The families can also communicate with their Jupiters ship’s systems.
Each mode of communication sounds different and was handled differently in post. Some processing was handled by the re-recording mixers, and some was created by the sound editorial team. For example, in Episode 1 Judy Robinson (Taylor Russell) is frozen underwater in a glacial lake. Whenever the shot cuts to Judy’s face inside her helmet, the sound is very close and claustrophobic.
Judy’s voice bounces off the helmet’s face-shield. She hears her sister through the headset and it’s a small, slightly futzed speaker sound. The processing on both Judy’s voice and her sister’s voice sounds very distinct, yet natural. “That was all Onnalee Blank and Mathew Waters,” says Cook. “They mixed this show, and they both bring so much to the table creatively. They’ll do additional futzing and treatments, like on the helmets. That was something that Onna wanted to do, to make it really sound like an ‘inside a helmet’ sound. It has that special quality to it.”
On the flipside, the ship’s voice was a process that Cook created. Co-supervisor Spencer recorded the voice actor’s lines in ADR and then Cook added vocoding, EQ futz and reverb to sell the idea that the voice was coming through the ship’s speakers. “Sometimes we worldized the lines by playing them through a speaker and recording them. I really tried to avoid too much reverb or heavy futzing knowing that on the stage the mixers may do additional processing,” he says.
In Episode 1, Will Robinson (Maxwell Jenkins) finds himself alone in the forest. He tries to call his father, John Robinson (Toby Stephens — a Black Sails alumni as well) via his wristband comm system but the transmission is interrupted by a strange, undulating, vocal-like sound. It’s interference from an alien ship that had crashed nearby. Cook notes that the interference sound required thorough experimentation. “That was a difficult one. The showrunners wanted something organic and very eerie, but it also needed to be jarring. We did quite a few versions of that.”
For the main element in that sound, Cook chose whale sounds for their innate pitchy quality. He manipulated and processed the whale recordings using Symbolic Sound’s Kyma sound design workstation.
Another challenging set of sounds were those created for Will Robinson’s Robot (Brian Steele). The Robot makes dying sounds, movement sounds and face-light sounds when it’s processing information. It can transform its body to look more human. It can use its hands to fire energy blasts or as a tool to create heat. It says, “Danger, Will Robinson,” and “Danger, Dr. Smith.” The Robot is sometimes a good guy and sometimes a bad guy, and the sound needed to cover all of that. “The Robot was a job in itself,” says Cook. “One thing we had to do was to sell emotion, especially for his dying sounds and his interactions with Will and the family.”
One of Cook’s trickiest feats was to create the proper sense of weight and movement for the Robot, and to portray the idea that the Robot was alive and organic but still metallic. “It couldn’t be earthly technology. Traditionally for robot movement you will hear people use servo sounds, but I didn’t want to use any kind of servos. So, we had to create a sound with a similar aesthetic to a servo,” says Cook. He turned to the Robot’s Foley sounds, and devised a processing chain to heavily treat those movement tracks. “That generated the basic body movement for the Robot and then we sweetened its feet with heavier sound effects, like heavy metal clanking and deeper impact booms. We had a lot of textures for the different surfaces like rock and foliage that we used for its feet.”
The Robot’s face lights change color to let everyone know if it’s in good-mode or bad-mode. But there isn’t any overt sound to emphasize the lights as they move and change. If the camera is extremely close-up on the lights, then there’s a faint chiming or tinkling sound that accentuates their movement. Overall though, there is a “presence” sound for the Robot, an undulating tone that’s reminiscent of purring when it’s in good-mode. “The showrunners wanted a kind of purring sound, so I used my cat purring as one of the building block elements for that,” says Cook. When the Robot is in bad-mode, the sound is anxious, like a pulsing heartbeat, to set the audience on edge.
It wouldn’t be Lost in Space without the Robot’s iconic line, “Danger, Will Robinson.” Initially, the showrunners wanted that line to sound as close to the original 1960’s delivery as possible. “But then they wanted it to sound unique too,” says Cook. “One comment was that they wanted it to sound like the Robot had metallic vocal cords. So we had to figure out ways to incorporate that into the treatment.” The vocal processing chain used several tools, from EQ, pitching and filtering to modulation plug-ins like Waves Morphoder and Dehumaniser by Krotos. “It was an extensive chain. It wasn’t just one particular tool; there were several of them,” he notes.
There are other sound elements that tie into the original 1960’s series. For example, when Maureen Robinson (Molly Parker) and husband John are exploring the wreckage of the alien ship they discover a virtual map room that lets them see into the solar system where they’ve crashed and into the galaxy beyond. The sound design during that sequence features sound material from the original show. “We treated and processed those original elements until they’re virtually unrecognizable, but they’re in there. We tried to pay tribute to the original when we could, when it was possible,” says Cook.
Other sound highlights include the Resolute exploding in space, which caused massive sections of the ship to break apart and collide. For that, Cook says contact microphones were used to capture the sound of tin cans being ripped apart. “There were so many fun things in the show for sound. From the first episode with the ship crash and it sinking into the glacier to the black hole sequence and the Robot fight in the season finale. The show had a lot of different challenges and a lot of opportunities for sound.”
Lost in Space was mixed in the Anthony Quinn Theater at Sony Pictures in 7.1 surround. Interestingly, the show was delivered in Dolby’s Home Atmos format. Cook explains, “When they booked the stage, the producer’s weren’t sure if we were going to do the show in Atmos or not. That was something they decided to do later so we had to figure out a way to do it.”
They mixed the show in Atmos while referencing the 7.1 mix and then played those mixes back in a Dolby Home Atmos room to check them, making any necessary adjustments and creating the Atmos deliverables. “Between updates for visual effects and music as well as the Atmos mixes, we spent roughly 80 days on the dub stage for the 10 episodes,” concludes Cook.
Santa Monica color and post studio Apache has added colorist Cullen Kelly. In addition to Kelly’s hire, the studio also promoted colorist Quinn Alvarez from an assistant’s role.
Kelly joins from Labrador Post, a color grading studio he founded in Austin, Texas. He has relocated to Southern California. Alvarez has been with Apache since 2015, joining from the production company Prettybird, where he handled all post duties and worked closely with its directors and producers.
“We’re currently working on several scripted and documentary shows for Hulu, Netflix and Amazon, in addition to our commercial work for agencies,” says Apache managing partner LaRue Anderson. “We needed additional artists that come with a unique perspective to color grading to handle these assignments, not just helping hands.”
Kelly worked with Apache earlier this year as a freelancer, doing finishing for the debut season of Netflix’s American Vandal series. Kelly, who studied film at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena before launching his career, worked in several post jobs before focusing on color grading. In addition to his work on the Netflix series, his reel includes short films and promos for The History Channel, FX Networks and SXSW.
When asked what drew him to color grading, Kelly said, “I’m a very visual person, and I love the amount of detail and energy that goes into color work. And it’s so collaborative; you’re working with people and helping bring their vision to life.”
A graduate of UC Berkeley, Alvarez says that while working at Prettybird he learned the craft of color grading from a director’s point of view, stressing the importance of story and substance. “I like the pace of color work, too,” he adds. “There’s always a new challenge, and new clients to work with. It keeps me fresh. And color is typically one of the final stages in a project — you’re putting the polish on things, so to speak, so people always leave happy.”
His reel includes work for such brands as Nike, Absolut, Jack Daniels, Tumi, Toyota, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz, as well as music videos shot by such directors as Paul Hunter, Eric Wareheim and Andy Hines.
Both Kelly and Alvarez use Blackmagic Resolve.
Apache’s branching out from just color to handling finishing is also driving its need to add more creative talent, reports Anderson: “Keeping the color and finish under the same roof, particularly for long-form projects, allows us to swiftly complete a show. That adds valuable time to our clients’ often-constrained post schedules, without compromising the look and feel of the film. And we’re finding that cinematographers and directors are moving to original series work, because it can offer more creative freedom. With the addition of Cullen and the promotion of Quinn, we now have five colorists to help transform their digital visions into reality.”
Over the past year alone, ADR mixer Bobby Johanson has been cranking out ADR and loop group for films such as Beauty and the Beast, The Light Between Oceans, Patriots Day, The Girl on the Train, Triple 9, Hail, Caesar! and more.
His expertise goes beyond film though. Johanson also does ADR for series, for shows like Amazon’s Red Oaks and their upcoming series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Netflix’s Master of None, which we will touch on lightly in a bit. First, let’s talk the art of ADR.
According to Johanson, “Last week, I did full days on three different films. Some weeks we record full days, nights and weekends, depending on the season, film festivals, what’s in post, actor availability and everything else that goes on with scheduling. Some sessions will book for two hours out of a day, while another client will want eight hours because of actor availability.”
With so many projects passing through his studio, efficiency is essential, but not at the cost of a job well done. “You have an actor on the stage and the director in the room, and you have to make things efficient,” says Johanson. “You have to play lines back as they are going to be in the show. You want to play the line and hear, ‘Was that ADR?’ Instantly, it’s a whole new world. People have been burned by not so good ADR in the past, and I feel like that compromises the performance. It’s very important for the talent to feel like they’re in good hands, so they forget about the technical side and just focus on their acting.”
Johanson got his start in ADR at New York’s Sound One facility, first as a messenger running reels around, and then moving up to the machine room when there was an opening for Sound One’s new ADR stage. “We didn’t really have anyone teaching us. The job was shown to us once; then we just had to figure out how to thread the dubbers and the projector. Once we got those hung, we would sit in the ADR studio and watch. I picked up a lot of my skills old-school. I’ve learned to incorporate those techniques into current technology and that works well for us.”
Gear-wise, one staple of his ADR career has been the Soundmaster ADR control system. Johanson calls it an “old-school tool,” probably 25 years old at this point, but he hasn’t found anything faster for recording ADR. “I used it at Sound One, and I used it at Digital Cinema, and now I use it here at Harbor. Until someone can invent another ADR synchronizer, this is the best for me.”
Johanson integrates the Soundmaster system with Avid Pro Tools 12 and works as a two-man team with ADR recordist Mike Rivera. “You can’t beat the efficiency and the attention to detail that you can get with the two-man team.”
Rivera tags the takes and makes minor edits while Johanson focuses on the director and the talent. “Because we are working on a synchronizer, the ADR recordist can do things that you couldn’t do if you were just shooting straight to Pro Tools,” explains Johanson. “We can actually edit on the fly and instantly playback the line in sync. I have the time to get the reverb on it and sweeten it. I can mix the line in because I’m not cutting it or pulling it into the track. That is being done while the system is moving on the pre-roll for a playback.”
For reverb, Johanson chooses an outboard Lexicon PCM80. This puts the controls easily within reach, and he can quickly add or change the reverb on the fly, helping the clean ADR line to sync into the scene. “The reverb unit is pretty old, but it is single-handedly the easiest reverb unit that you can use. There are four room sizes, and then you can adjust the delay of the reverb four times. I have been using this reverb for so many years now that I can match any reverb from any movie or TV show because I know this unit so well.”
Another key piece of gear in his set-up is an outboard Eventide H3000 SE sampler, which Johanson uses to sample the dialogue line they need to replace and play it back over and over for the actor to re-perform. “We offer a variety of ways to do ADR, like using beeps and having the actor perform to picture, but many actors prefer an older method that goes back to ‘looping.’ Back in the day, you would just run a line over and over again and the actor would emulate it. Then we put the select take of that line to picture. It’s a method that 60 percent of our actors who come in here love to do, and I can do that using the sampler.”
He also uses the sampler for playback. By sampling background noise from the scene, he can play that under the ADR line during playback and it helps the ADR to sit in the scene. “I keep the sampler and reverb as outboard gear because I can control them quickly. I’m doing things freestyle and we don’t have to stop the session. We don’t have to stop the system and wait for a playback or wait to do a record pass. Because we are a two-man operation, I can focus on these pieces of gear while Mike is tagging the takes with their cue numbers and managing them in the Pro Tools session for delivery. I can’t find an easier or quicker way to do what I do.”
While Johanson’s set-up may lack the luster of newly minted audio tools, it’s hard to argue with results. It’s not a case of “if it’s not broke then don’t fix it,” but rather a case of “don’t mess with perfection.”
Master of None
The set-up served them well while recording ADR and loop group for Netflix’s Emmy-winning comedy series Master of None. “Kudos to production sound mixer Michael Barosky because there wasn’t too much dialogue that we needed to replace with ADR for Season 2,” says Johanson. “But we did do a lot of loop group — sweetening backgrounds and walla, and things like that.”
For the Italian episodes, they brought in bilingual actors to record Italian language loop group. One scene that stood out for Johanson was the wedding scene in Italy, where the guests start jumping into the swimming pool. “We have a nice-sized ADR stage and so that frees us up to do a lot of movement. We were directing the actors to jump in front of the mic and run by the mic, to give us the effect of people jumping into the pool. That worked quite nicely in the track.”