Category Archives: on-set

DP Chat: Madam Secretary’s Learan Kahanov

By Randi Altman

Cinematographer Learan Kahanov’s love of photography started at an early age, when he would stage sequences and scenes with his Polaroid camera, lining up the photos to create a story.

He took that love of photography and turned it into a thriving career, working in television, features and commercials. He currently works on the CBS drama Madam Secretary — where he was initially  hired to be the A-camera operator and additional DP. He shot 12 episodes and tandem units, then he took over the show fully in Season 3. The New York-shot, Washington, DC-set show stars Téa Leoni as the US Secretary of State, following her struggle to balance her work and personal life.

We recently reached out to Kahanov to find out more about his path, as well as his workflow, on Madam Secretary.

Learan Kahanov on set with director Rob Greenlea.

Can you talk about your path to cinematography?
My mother is a sculptor and printmaker, and when I was in middle school, she went back to get a degree in fine arts with a minor in photography. This essentially meant I was in tow, on many a weeknight, to the darkroom so she could do her printing and, in turn, I learned as well.

I shot mostly black and white all through middle school and high school. I would often use my mother’s art studio to shoot the models who posed for the drawing class she taught. Around the same time, I developed a growing fascination with animal behavior and strove to become a wildlife photographer, until I realized I didn’t have the patience to sit in a tree for days to get the perfect shot.

I soon turned my attention to videography while working at a children’s museum, teaching kids how to use the cameras and how to make short movies. I decided to pursue cinematography officially in high school. I eventually found myself at NYU film school, based off my photography portfolio. As soon as I got to New York City, I started working on indie films, as an electrician and gaffer, shooting every student film and indie project I could.

What inspires you artistically? And how do you simultaneously stay on top of advancing technology that serves your vision?
I could list artists or filmmakers whose work I gravitate to, but the main thing I learned from my mother about art is that it’s about a feeling. Whether it’s being affected by a beautifully photographed image of a woman in a commercial or getting sucked into the visuals in a wildlife documentary, if you can invoke a feeling and or create an emotion you have made art.

Madam Secretary

I am always looking at things around me, and I’m always aware of how light falls on the world around me. Or how the shape of everyday objects and places change depending on the time, the weather or just my mood at the moment.

My vision of a project is always born out of the story, so the key for me is to always use technology (new or old) to support that story. Sometimes the latest in LED technology is the right tool for the job, sometimes it’s a bare light bulb attached to the underside of a white, five-gallon paint bucket (a trick Gaffer Jack Coffin and I use quite often). I think the balance between vision and technology is a two-way street — the key is to recognize when the technology serves your vision or the other way around.

What new technology has changed the way you work?
In the area of lighting, I have found that no matter what new tools come onto the scene, I still hold true to my go-to lighting techniques that I have preferred for years.

A perfect example would be my love for book lights — a book light is a bounced light that then goes through another layer of diffusion, which is perfect for lighting faces. Whether I am using an old Mole Richardson 5K tungsten unit or the newer ARRI S60 SkyPanels, the concept and end result are basically the same.

That being said, for location work the ARRI LED SkyPanels have become one of the go-to units on my current show, Madam Secretary. The lights’ high-output, low-power consumption, ease for matching existing location color sources and quick effects make them an easy choice for dealing with the faster-paced TV production schedule.

On-set setup

One other piece of gear that I have found myself calling for on a daily basis, since my key grip Ted Lehane introduced me to. It’s a diffusion material called Magic Cloth, which is produced by The Rag Place. This material can work as a bounce, as well as a diffusion, and you can directly light through. It produces a very soft light, as it’s fairly thick, but it does not change the color temperature of the source light. This new material, in conjunction with new LED technology, has created some interesting opportunities for my team.

Many DPs talk about the latest digital sensor, camera support (drone/gimbals, etc.) or LED lighting, but sometimes it’s something very simple, like finding a new diffusion material that can really change the look and the way I work. In fact, I think gripology in general often gets overlooked in the current affairs of filmmaking where everything seems to need to be “state of the art.”

What are some of your best practices or rules that you try to follow on each job?
I have one hard and fast rule in any project I shoot: support the story! I like to think of myself as a filmmaker first, using cinematography as a way to contribute to the filmmaking process. That being said, we can create lots of “rules” and have all the “go-to practices” to create beautiful images, but if what you are doing doesn’t advance the story, or at the very least create the right mood for the scene, then you are just taking a picture.

There are definite things I do because I simply prefer how it looks, but if it doesn’t make sense for the scene/move (based on the directors and my vision), I will then adjust what I do to make sure I am always supporting the story. There are definitely times where a balance is needed. We don’t create in a bubble, as there are all the other factors to consider, like budget, time, shooting conditions, etc. It’s this need/ability to be both technician and artisan that excites me the most about my job.

Can you explain your ideal collaboration with the director when setting the look of a project?
When working in episodic TV, every episode — essentially every eight days — there is a different director. Even when I have a repeat director, I have to adapt quickly between each director’s style. This goes beyond just being a chameleon from a creative standpoint — I need to quickly establish trust and a short hand to help the director put their stamp on their episode, all while staying within the already established look of the show.

Madam Secretary

I have always considered myself not an “idea man” but rather a “make-the-idea-better” man. I say this because being able to collaborate with a director and not just see their vision, but also enhance it and take it a step further (and see their excitement in the process), is completely fulfilling.

Tell us about Madam Secretary. How would you describe the overarching look of the show? How early did you get involved in the production?
I have been a part of Madam Secretary since the beginning, minus the pilot. I was hired as the A camera operator and as an additional DP. Jonathan Brown, ASC, shot the pilot and was the DP for the first two seasons. He was also one of our directors for the first three seasons. In addition to shooting tandem/2nd unit days and filling on scout days, I was the DP whenever Jonathan directed. So while I didn’t create the initial look of the show, I worked closely with Jonathan as the seasons went on until I officially took over in the third season.

Since I took over (and during my episodes), I felt an obligation to hold true to the original look and the intent of the show, while also adding my personal touch and allowing the show’s look to evolve with the series. The show does give us opportunities every week to create something new. While the reoccurring sets/locations do have a relatively set look, every episode takes us to new parts of the world and to new events.

It gives the director, production team and me an opportunity to create different looks and aesthetics to differentiate it from Madam Secretary’s life in DC. While it’s a quick schedule to prep,  research and create new looks for convincing foreign locations every episode (we shoot 99% of the show in New York), it is a challenge that brings a creativity and excitement to the job that I really enjoy.

Learan Kahanov on set with Hillary Clinton for the episode E Pluribus Unum.

Can you talk about what you shoot on and what lenses you use, etc.?
The show is currently shooting on Alexa SXTs with Leica Summicron Prime lenses and Fujinon Cabrio zooms. One of the main things I did when I officially took over the show was to switch to Lecia Primes. We did some testing with Tèa Leoni and Tim Daly on our sets to see how the lenses treated skin tones.

Additionally, we wanted to see how they reacted to the heavy backlight and to the blown out windows we have on many of our sets. We all agreed that the lenses were sharp, but also realized that they created a softer feel on our actors faces, had a nice focus fall-off and they handled the highlights really well. They are flexible enough to help me create different looks while still retaining a consistency for the show. The lenses have an interesting flare characteristic that sometimes makes controlling them difficult, but it all adds to the current look of the show and has yet to be limiting.

You used a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema camera for some specialized shots. Can you describe those?
The show has many scenes that entail some specialized shots that need a small but high-res camera that has an inherently different feel from the Alexa. These shots include webcam and security camera footage. There are also many times when we need to create body/helmet cam footage to emulate images recorded from military/police missions that then were played back in the president’s situation room. That lightweight, high-quality camera allows for a lot of flexibility. We also employ other small cameras like GoPro and DJI Osmo, as well as the Sony A7RII with PL mount.

Madam Secretary

Any challenging scenes that you are particularly proud of?
I don’t think there is an episode that goes by without some type of challenge, but one in particular that I was really happy with took place on a refugee boat in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.

The scene was set at night where refugees were making a harrowing trip from the north coast of Libya to France. Since we couldn’t shoot on the ocean at night, we brought the boat and a storm into the studio.

Our production designer and art department cut a real boat in half and brought it onto the stage. Drew Jiritano and his special effects team then placed the boat on a gimbal and waterproofed the stage floor so we could place rain towers and air cannons to simulate a storm in the middle of the sea.

Using a technocrane, handheld cameras and interactive lighting, we created a great scene that immersed the audience in a realistic depiction of the dramatic journey that happens more often than most Americans realize.


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

Lowepost offering Scratch training for DITs, post pros

Oslo, Norway-based Lowepost, which offers an online learning platform for post production, has launched an Assimilate Scratch Training Channel targeting DITs and post pros. This training includes an extensive series of tutorials that help guide a post pro or DIT through the features of an entire Scratch workflow. Scratch products offer dailies to conform, color grading, visual effects, compositing, finishing, VR and live streaming.

“We’re offering in-depth training of Scratch via comprehensive tutorials developed by Lowepost and Assimilate,” says Stig Olsen, manager of Lowepost. “Our primary goal is to make Scratch training easily accessible to all users and post artists for building their skills in high-end tools that will advance their expertise and careers. It’s also ideal for DaVinci Resolve colorists who want to add another excellent conform, finishing and VR tool to their tool kit.”

Lowepost is offering three-month free access to the Scratch training. The first tutorial, Scratch Essential Training, is also available now. A free 30-day trial offer of Scratch is available via their website.

Lowepost’s Scratch Training Channel is available for an annual fee of $59 (US).

DigitalGlue 3.7

Cold War’s Oscar-nominated director Pawel Pawlikowski

By Iain Blair

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

Pawel Pawlikowski                            Credit: Magda Wunsche and Aga Samsel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Red intros LCD touch monitor for DSMC2 cameras

Red Digital Cinema has introduced the DSMC2 Touch 7-inch Ultra-Brite LCD monitor to its line of camera accessories. It offers an optically-bonded touchscreen with Gorilla Glass that allows for what the company calls “intuitive ways to navigate menus, adjust camera parameters and review .R3D clips directly out of the camera.”

The monitor offers a brighter high-definition viewing experience for recording and viewing footage on DSMC2 camera systems, even in direct sunlight. A 1920×1200 resolution display panel provides 2,200 nits of brightness to overcome viewing difficulties in bright outdoor environments as well as a high-pixel density (at 323ppi) and a 1200:1 contrast ratio.

The Ultra-Brite display mounts to Red’s DSMC2 Brain or other 1/4-20 mounting surfaces, and provides a LEMO connection to the camera, making it an ideal monitoring option for gimbals, cranes, and cabled remote viewing. Shooters can use a DSMC2 LEMO Adaptor A in conjunction with the Ultra-Brite display for convenient mounting options away from the DSMC2 camera Brain.

Check out a demo of the new monitor, priced at $3,750, here.


BlacKkKlansman director Spike Lee

By Iain Blair

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

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

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

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

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

Iain Blair and Spike Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spike Lee on set.

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

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

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

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


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


Making audio pop for Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns

By Jennifer Walden

As the song says, “It’s a jolly holiday with Mary.” And just in time for the holidays, there’s a new Mary Poppins musical to make the season bright. In theaters now, Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns is directed by Rob Marshall, who with Chicago, Nine and Into the Woods on his resume, has become the master of modern musicals.

Renée Tondelli

In this sequel, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) comes back to help the now-grown up Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) by attending to Michael’s three children: Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson). It’s a much-needed reunion for the family as Michael is struggling with the loss of his wife.

Mary Poppins Returns is another family reunion of sorts. According to Renée Tondelli, who along with Eugene Gearty, supervised and co-designed the sound, director Marshall likes to use the same crews on all his films. “Rob creates families in each phase of the film, so we all have a shorthand with each other. It’s really the most wonderful experience you can have in a filmmaking process,” says Tondelli, who has worked with Marshall on five films, three of which were his musicals. “In the many years of working in this business, I have never worked with a more collaborative, wonderful, creative team than I have on Mary Poppins Returns. That goes for everyone involved, from the picture editor down to all of our assistants.”

Sound editorial took place in New York at Sixteen 19, the facility where the picture was being edited. Sound mixing was also done in New York, at Warner Bros. Sound.

In his musicals, Marshall weaves songs into scenes in a way that feels organic. The songs are coaxed from the emotional quotient of the story. That’s not only true for how the dialogue transitions into the singing, but also for how the music is derived from what’s happening in the scene. “Everything with Rob is incredibly rhythmic,” she says. “He has an impeccable sense of timing. Every breath, every footstep, every movement has a rhythmic cadence to it that relates to and works within the song. He does this with every artform in the production — with choreography, production design and sound design.”

From a sound perspective, Tondelli and her team worked to integrate the songs by blending the pre-recorded vocals with the production dialogue and the ADR. “We combined all of those in a micro editing process, often syllable by syllable, to create a very seamless approach so that you can’t really tell where they stop talking and start singing,” she says.

The Conversation
For example, near the beginning of the film, Michael is looking through the attic of their home on Cherry Tree Lane as he speaks to the spirit of his deceased wife, telling her how much he misses her in a song called “The Conversation.” Tondelli explains, “It’s a very delicate scene, and it’s a song that Michael was speaking/singing. We constantly cut between his pre-records and his production dialogue. It was an amazing collaboration between me, the supervising music editor Jennifer Dunnington and re-recording mixer Mike Prestwood Smith. We all worked together to create this delicate balance so you really feel that he is singing his song in that scene in that moment.”

Since Michael is moving around the attic as he’s performing the song, the environment affects the quality of the production sound. As he gets closer to the window, the sound bounces off the glass. “Mike [Prestwood Smith] really had his work cut out for him on that song. We were taking impulse responses from the end of the slates and feeding them into Audio Ease’s Altiverb to get the right room reverb on the pre-records. We did a lot of impulse responses and reverbs, and EQs to make that scene all flow, but it was worth it. It was so beautiful.”

The Bowl
They also captured impulse responses for another sequence, which takes place inside a ceramic bowl. The sequence begins with the three Banks children arguing over their mother’s bowl. They accidentally drop it and it breaks. Mary and Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) notice the bowl’s painted scenery has changed. The horse-drawn carriage now has a broken wheel that must be fixed. Mary spins the bowl and a gust of wind pulls them into the ceramic bowl’s world, which is presented in 2D animation. According to Tondelli, the sequence was hand-drawn, frame by frame, as an homage to the original Mary Poppins. “They actually brought some animators out of retirement to work on this film,” she says.

Tondelli and co-supervising sound editor/co-sound designer Eugene Gearty placed mics inside porcelain bowls, in a porcelain sink, and near marble tiles, which they thumped with rubber mallets, broken pieces of ceramic and other materials. The resulting ring-out was used to create reverbs that were applied to every element in the ceramic bowl sequence, from the dialogue to the Foley. “Everything they said, every step they took had to have this ceramic feel to it, so as they are speaking and walking it sounds like it’s all happening inside a bowl,” Tondelli says.

She first started working on this hand-drawn animation sequence when it showed little more than the actors against a greenscreen with a few pencil drawings. “The fastest and easiest way to make a scene like that come alive is through sound. The horse, which was possibly the first thing that was drawn, is pullling the carriage. It dances in this syncopated rhythm with the music so it provides a rhythmic base. That was the first thing that we tackled.”

After the carriage is fixed, Mary and her troupe walk to the Royal Doulton Music Hall where, ultimately, Jack and Mary are going to perform. Traditionally, a music hall in London is very rowdy and boisterous. The audience is involved in the show and there’s an air of playfulness. “Rob said to me, ‘I want this to be an English music hall, Renée. You really have to make that happen.’ So I researched what music halls were like and how they sounded.”

Since the animation wasn’t complete, Tondelli consulted with the animators to find out who — or rather what — was going to be in the audience. “There were going to be giraffes dressed up in suits with hats and Indian elephants in beautiful saris, penguins on the stage dancing with Jack and Mary, flamingos, giant moose and rabbits, baby hippos and other animals. The only way I thought I could do this was to go to London and hire actors of all ages who could do animal voices.”

But there were some specific parameters that had to be met. Tondelli defines the world of Mary Poppins Returns as being “magical realism,” so the animals couldn’t sound too cartoony. They had to sound believably like animal versions of British citizens. Also, the actors had to be able to sing in their animal voices.

According to Tondelli, they recorded 15 actors at a time for a period of five days. “I would call out, ‘Who can do an orangutan?’ And then the actors would all do voices and we’d choose one. Then they would do the whole song and sing out and call out. We had all different accents — Cockney, Welsh and Scottish,” she says. “All the British Isles came together on this and, of course, they all loved Mary and knew all the songs so they sang along with her.”

On the Dolby Atmos mix, the music hall scene really comes alive. The audience’s voices are coming from the rafters and all around the walls and the music is reverberating into the space — which, by the way, no longer sounds like it’s in a ceramic bowl even though the music hall is in the ceramic bowl world. In addition to the animal voices, there are hooves and paws for the animals’ clapping. “We had to create the clapping in Foley because it wasn’t normal clapping,” explains Tondelli. “The music hall was possibly the most challenging, but also the funnest scene to do. We just loved it. All of us had a great time on it.”

The Foley
The Foley elements in Mary Poppins Returns often had to be performed in perfect sync with the music. On the big dance numbers, like “Trip the Light Fantastic,” the Foley was an essential musical element since the dances were reconstructed sonically in post. “Everything for this scene was wiped away, even the vocals. We ended up using a lot of the records for this one and a lot less production sound,” says Tondelli.

In “Trip the Light Fantastic,” Jack is bringing the kids back home through the park, and they emerge from a tunnel to see nearly 50 lamplighters on lampposts. Marshall and John DeLuca (choreographer/producer/screen story writer) arranged the dance to happen in multiple layers, with each layer doing something different. “The background dancers were doing hand slaps and leg swipes, and another layer was stepping on and off of these slate surfaces. Every time the dancers would jump up on the lampposts, they’d hit it and each would ring out in a different pitch,” explains Tondelli.

All those complex rhythms were performed in Foley in time to the music. It’s a pretty tall order to ask of any Foley artist but Tondelli has the perfect solution for that dilemma. “I hire the co-choreographers (for this film, Joey Pizzi and Tara Hughes) or dancers that actually worked on the film to do the Foley. It’s something that I always do for Rob’s films. There’s such a difference in the performance,” she says.

Tondelli worked with the Foley team of Marko Costanzo and George Lara at c5 Sound in New York, who helped to build custom surfaces — like a slate-on-sand surface for the lamplighter dance — and arrange multi-surface layouts to optimally suit the Foley performer’s needs.

For instance, in the music hall sequence, the dance on stage incorporates books, so they needed three different surfaces: wood, leather and a papery-sounding surface set up in a logical, easily accessible way. “I wanted the dancer performing the Foley to go through the entire number while jumping off and on these different surfaces so you felt like it was a complete dance and not pieced together,” she says.

For the lamplighter dance, they had a big, thick pig iron pipe next to the slate floor so that the dancer performing the Foley could hit it every time the dancers on-screen jumped up on the lampposts. “So the performer would dance on the slate floor, then hit the pipe and then jump over to the wood floor. It was an amazingly syncopated rhythmic soundtrack,” says Tondelli.

“It was an orchestration, a beautiful sound orchestra, a Foley orchestra that we created and it had to be impeccably in sync. If there was a step out of place you’d hear it,” she continues. “It was really a process to keep it in sync through all the edit conforms and the changes in the movie. We had to be very careful doing the conforms and making the adjustments because even one small mistake and you would hear it.”

The Wind
Wind plays a prominent role in the story. Mary Poppins descends into London on a gust of wind. Later, they’re transported into the ceramic bowl world via a whirlwind. “It’s everywhere, from a tiny leaf blowing across the sidewalk to the huge gale in the park,” attests Tondelli. “Each one of those winds has a personality that Eugene [Gearty] spent a lot of time working on. He did amazing work.”

As far as the on-set fans and wind machines wreaking havoc on the production dialogue, Tondelli says there were two huge saving graces. First was production sound mixer Simon Hayes, who did a great job of capturing the dialogue despite the practical effects obstacles. Second was dialogue editor Alexa Zimmerman, who was a master at iZotope RX. All told, about 85% of the production dialogue made it into the film.

“My goal — and my unspoken order from Rob — was to not replace anything that we didn’t have to. He’s so performance-oriented. He arduously goes over every single take to make sure it’s perfect,” says Tondelli, who also points out that Marshall isn’t afraid of using ADR. “He will pick words from a take and he doesn’t care if it’s coming from a pre-record and then back to ADR and then back to production. Whichever has the best performance is what wins. Our job then is to make all of that happen for him.”


Jennifer Walden is a New Jersey-based audio engineer and writer. You can follow her on Twitter @audiojeny


Josie Rourke on her feature directorial debut, Mary Queen of Scots

By Iain Blair

Given all the recent talk about the lack of opportunity for women in Hollywood, it’s apt that for her feature film directorial debut, Josie Rourke took on the story of Mary Queen of Scots, the period drama about two of the most famous women in history.

It’s also apt that this retelling of the turbulent life of Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) and that of her English cousin Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) has all the deeply emotional interpersonal drama of an intense play since Rourke is the artistic director of London’s prestigious Donmar Warehouse, where she’s staged acclaimed and groundbreaking productions.

Josie Rourke on set.

Based on the book “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart,” the film offers a fresh take on the two strong women who occupy center stage in what was very much a man’s world. Queen of France at age 16, widowed at 18, Mary defies pressure to remarry and instead returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne. By birth, Mary had a rival claim to the English throne. Contrary to earlier accounts and based on the latest research, she was a capable politician and leader who wanted an alliance with her cousin Elizabeth.

Mary fights to govern her unruly kingdom at a time when female monarchs are reviled as monstrous. To secure their thrones, the two queens make very different choices about marriage and children. Mary’s reputation is under continual attack from her enemies, who construct lies about her sexual conduct. Betrayal, rebellion and conspiracies within each court imperil both queens, driving them apart as each woman experiences the bitter cost of power.

The film co-stars Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, Martin Compston, Brendan Coyle, David Tennant and Guy Pearce. Behind the scenes, Rourke assembled a team that included writer Beau Willimon, costume designer Alexandra Byrne, production designer James Merifield, editor Chris Dickens, composer Max Richter and director of photography John Mathieson.

I spoke with Rourke about making the film, the Oscar buzz and her workflow.

What sort of film did you set out to make?
I love historical dramas and have done tons of Shakespeare in the theater. I always think that they’re so relevant to the present and that they can often give you a clearer picture and understanding of “now” than of the past. So my aim was to really create something relevant, and to also right a wrong about Mary and how she’s been portrayed through history.

This film is based on historian Dr. John Guy’s biography “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart,” which explored Mary’s life and her claim to the throne. It’s a very vivid book. He got back into the archives and discovered that she’s really been besmirched, in a fake news way. Her enemies not only made sure she met her end, but they also destroyed her reputation by portraying her as a woman totally driven by emotion, not intelligence, and someone too sexual and unable to govern properly. So I wanted to tell the truth about her.

In a way, the film is a battle of will and wits between these two queens — Mary and Elizabeth. What did Saoirse and Margot bring to the roles?
Well, I needed two of the greatest actresses of this generation — young women since they’re two young queens. Katherine Hepburn, Judy Dench, Cate Blanchett and others have gone before, so there were big shoes to fill. And the roles demand great range, emotional complexity and that power where they can command men and the room. Saoirse was already attached, and I passionately went after Margot, who was initially unsure about taking on such an iconic character. The were both amazing. They both totally inhabit the roles.

What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?
We didn’t have a big budget, although compared with theater it was huge. We had ambitions to shoot a lot of it on location in Scotland and England, so we could show the soft, poetic beauty of the English countryside and the extreme majesty of Scotland and its rugged landscapes.

Two very different looks.
Exactly, and those contrasting visuals really helped tell their two stories. We basically see Elizabeth’s life as a very interior one; always in court and very formal. But Mary’s often out in the wilds, on horseback, and far more earthy. We shot in pretty remote locations in Scotland, where the weather changes every hour, so I just decided we’d shoot in the rain when it rained. But then suddenly, the skies would clear and you’d get these beautiful views and vistas, which was magical. I think that made everyone — the cast and crew — just bond even more over the project. You can’t fake that sort of thing — real locations, real weather. All that in turn affected their clothes and costumes, and I think Alex Byrne did a brilliant job with that.

The film looks very beautiful, and two-time Oscar-nominee John Mathieson (Gladiator, Hannibal, Matchstick Men, The Phantom of the Opera) shot it. Can you talk about how you collaborated on the look?
I’d seen his work, particularly in Logan, which had such incredible tonal control. John has great discipline with tone and color, and the other great thing is that he has a background in music, so he can improvise.

There’s a scene by a dead tree where John Knox is giving one of his rabble-rousing speeches, and it had been raining so hard that where we’d originally scouted and decided to shoot was totally inaccessible on the day. Instead we found this amazing tree in the same glen, and John quickly lit it and it turned out so well. We went for a very painterly look with a lot of the interior scenes, so some scenes are like Rembrandt paintings with great shadow play and highlights.

Where did you post?
We did most of it at Pinewood and Abbey Road in London, and did a Dolby Atmos mix at the new mix stage there. I was beside myself to be mixing there, where The Beatles and everyone else has worked. Post took about nine months, mainly because I’m also running a theater as well as my day job — or night job, to be more accurate. We did the DI at Company 3 with Paul Ensby.

Do you like the post process?
I really love it, especially the editing, which for me is very similar to being in a room rehearsing with actors. You’re basically getting a series of different performances from them. You’re trying out different things and trying to find the rhythm of a scene.

Talk about editing with Chris Dickens, who won the Oscar and BAFTA for his work on Slumdog Millionaire. What were the big editing challenges?
He’s brilliant and thought I was completely bonkers as I’d talk out loud to the actors while we cut, just like I would do in rehearsal. He was on set with us a little bit, but he far prefers to get all the material cold without any preconceptions about how we got it, or what the actors are actually like as people. He tries to preserve impartiality, and that’s great.

The big challenge was balancing the two stories and two women, and we tried various ways but in the end we largely followed the screenplay. One of Chris’ great skills is the way he cut between the two. He would hone in on the psychology and find those moments when one woman is thinking about the other.

All period films use some visual effects. What was involved?
You’re right, and the biggest challenge was the battle sequence where all the Highland cattle block the bridge. On that day we got far fewer than we’d booked, so we had to add a bunch, and London’s Bluebolt did an absolutely seamless job. Then we had shots of Edinburgh Castle in the distance, and we had a fair amount of clean up, but it was all very subtle.

Talk about the importance of sound and music,
Working on the sound mix was one of the most creative experiences I’ve ever had. In theater, sound is important in that one of a director’s most basic functions is telling whether or not an actor on stage can be heard. Are they loud enough? Was that line clear? It’s the least glamorous part of the job, but really important. To do that, we spend a lot of time thinking about the acoustics of a room or space, how reflective surfaces might be, where the ideal spot on stage is for a certain speech or line. So to then get into a post process where you’re discussing the atmospherics and sound dynamics of the room you’re working in was so exciting to me. Normally, you’re tuning the actors to the room, but now I could tune the room to the actors, and that was so cool.

Josie Rourke and Iain Blair

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
It did, and I can’t wait to direct another film. I don’t have anything lined up yet, but I’m looking.

We’re heading into awards season, and this is getting a lot of attention. How important is all that?
It’s all very new to me, a bit like a dream in a way. I’d love to see everyone recognized for all their hard work. Everyone was so willing to share their knowledge and experience with a first-timer. I’m just so grateful.


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.


Director Peter Farrelly gets serious with Green Book

By Iain Blair

Director, producer and writer Peter Farrelly is best known for the classic comedies he made with his brother Bob: Dumb and Dumber; There’s Something About Mary; Shallow Hal; Me, Myself & Irene; The Three Stooges; and Fever Pitch. But for all their over-the-top, raunchy and boundary-pushing comedy, those movies were always sweet-natured at heart.

Peter Farrelly

Now Farrelly has taken his gift for heartfelt comedy and put his stamp on a very different kind of film, Green Book, a racially charged feel-good drama inspired by a true friendship that transcended race, class and the 1962 Mason-Dixon line.

Starring Oscar-nominee Viggo Mortensen and Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali, it tells the fact-based story of the ultimate odd couple: Tony Lip, a bouncer from The Bronx and Dr. Don Shirley, a world-class black pianist. Lip is hired to drive and protect the worldly and sophisticated Shirley during a 1962 concert tour from Manhattan to the Deep South, where they must rely on the titular “Green Book” — a travel guide to safe lodging, dining and business options for African-Americans during the segregation era.

Set against the backdrop of a country grappling with the valor and volatility of the civil rights movement, the two men are confronted with racism and danger as they challenge long-held assumptions, push past their seemingly insurmountable differences and embrace their shared humanity.

The film also features Linda Cardellini as Tony Vallelonga’s wife, Dolores, along with Dimiter D. Marinov and Mike Hatton as two-thirds of The Don Shirley Trio. The film was co-written by Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga and Brian Currie and reunites Farrelly with editor Patrick J. Don Vito, with whom he worked on the Movie 43 segment “The Pitch.” Farrelly also collaborated for the first-time with cinematographer Sean Porter (read our interview with him), production designer Tim Galvin and composer Kris Bowers.

I spoke with Farrelly about making the film, his workflow and the upcoming awards season. After its Toronto People’s Choice win and Golden Globe nominations (Best Director, Best Musical or Comedy Motion Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Actor for Mortensen, Best Supporting Actor for Ali), Green Book looks like a very strong Oscar contender.

You told me years ago that you’d love to do a more dramatic film at some point. Was this a big stretch for you?
Not so much, to be honest. People have said to me, “It must have been hard,” but the hardest film I ever made was The Three Stooges… for a bunch of reasons. True, this was a bit of a departure for me in terms of tone, and I definitely didn’t want it to get too jokey — I tend to get jokey so it could easily have gone like that.  But right from the start we were very clear that the comedy would come naturally from the characters and how they interacted and spoke and moved, and so on, not from jokes.

So a lot of the comedy is quite nuanced, and in the scene where Tony starts talking about “the orphans” and Don explains that it’s actually about the opera Orpheus, Viggo has this great reaction and look that wasn’t in the script, and it’s much funnier than any joke we could have made there.

What sort of film did you set out to make?
A drama about race and race relations set in a time when it was very fraught, with light moments and a hopeful, uplifting ending.

It has some very timely themes. Was that part of the appeal?
Absolutely. I knew that it would resonate today, although I wish it didn’t. What really hooked me was their common ground. They really are this odd couple who couldn’t be more different — an uneducated, somewhat racist Italian bouncer, and this refined, highly educated, highly cultured doctor and classically trained pianist. They end up spending all this time together in a car on tour, and teach each other so much along the way. And at the end, you know they’ll be friends for life.

Obviously, casting the right lead actors was crucial. What did Viggo and Mahershala bring to the roles?
Well, for a start they’re two of the greatest actors in the world, and when we were shooting this I felt like an observer. Usually, I can see a lot of the actor in the role, but they both disappeared totally into these characters — but not in some method-y way where they were staying in character all the time, on and off the set. They just became these people, and Viggo couldn’t be less like Tony Lip in real life, and the same with Mahershala and Don. They both worked so hard behind the scenes, and I got a call from Steven Spielberg when he first saw it, and he told me, “This is the best buddy movie since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and he’s right.

It’s a road picture, but didn’t you end up shooting it all in and around New Orleans?
Yes, we did everything there apart from one day in northern New Jersey to get the fall foliage, and a day of exteriors in New York City with Viggo for all the street scenes. Louisiana has everything, from rolling hills to flats. We also found all the venues and clubs they play in, along with mansions and different looks that could double for places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, as well as Carolinas and the Deep South.

We shot for just 35 days, and Louisiana has great and very experienced crews, so we were able to work pretty fast. Then for scenes like Carnegie Hall, we used CGI in post, done by Pixel Magic, and we were also amazingly lucky when it came to the snow scenes set in Maryland at the end. We were all ready to use fake snow when it actually started snowing and sticking. We got a good three, four inches, which they told us hadn’t happened in a decade or two down there.

Where did you post?
We did most of the editing at my home in Ojai, and the sound at Fotokem, where we also did the DI with colorist Walter Volpatto.

Do you like the post process?
I love it. My favorite part of filmmaking is the editing. Writing is the hardest part, pulling the script together. And I always have fun on the shoot, but you’re always having to make sure you don’t screw up the script. So when you get to the edit and post, all the hard work is done in that sense, and you have the joy of watching the movie find its shape as you cut and add in the sound and music.

What were the big editing challenges, given there’s such a mix of comedy and drama?
Finding that balance was the key, but this film actually came together so easily in the edit compared with some of the movies I’ve done. I’ll never forget seeing the first assembly of There’s Something About Mary, which I thought was so bad it made me want to vomit! But this just flowed, and Patrick did a beautiful job.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film.
It was a huge part of the film and we had a really amazing pianist and composer in Kris Bowers, who worked a lot with Mahershala to make his performance as a musician as authentic as possible. And it wasn’t just the piano playing — Mahershala told me right at the start, “I want to know just how a pianist sits at the piano, how he moves.” So he was totally committed to all the details of the role. Then there’s all the radio music, and I didn’t want to use all the obvious, usual stuff for the period, so we searched out other great, but lesser-known songs. We had great music supervisors, Tom Wolfe and Manish Raval, and a great sound team.

We’re already heading into the awards season. How important are awards to you and this film?
Very important. I love the buzz about it because that gets people out to see it. When we first tested it, we got 100%, and the studio didn’t quite believe it. So we tested again, with “a tougher” audience, and got 98%. But it’s a small film. Everyone took pay cuts to make it, as the budget was so low, but I’m very proud of the way it turned out.


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.


Capturing realistic dialogue for The Front Runner

By Mel Lambert

Early on in his process, The Front Runner director Jason Reitman asked frequent collaborator and production sound mixer Steve Morrow, CAS, to join the production. “It was maybe inevitable that Jason would ask me to join the crew,” says Morrow, who has worked with the director on Labor Day, Up in the Air and Thank You for Smoking. “I have been part of Jason’s extended family for at least 10 years — having worked with his father Ivan Reitman on Draft Day — and know how he likes to work.”

Steve Morrow

This Sony Pictures film was co-written by Reitman, Matt Bai and Jay Carson, and based on Bai’s book, “All the Truth Is Out.” The Front Runner follows the rise and fall of Senator Gary Hart, set during his unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1988 when he was famously caught having an affair with the much younger Donna Rice. Despite capturing the imagination of young voters, and being considered the overwhelming front runner for the Democratic nomination, Hart’s campaign was sidelined by the affair.

It stars Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart, Vera Farmiga as his wife Lee, J.K. Simmons as campaign manager Bill Dixon and Alfred Molina as the Washington Post’s managing editor, Ben Bradlee.

“From the first read-through of the script, I knew that we would be faced with some production challenges,” recalls Morrow, a 20-year industry veteran. “There were a lot of ensemble scenes with the cast talking over one another, and I knew from previous experience that Jason doesn’t like to rely on ADR. Not only is he really concerned about the quality of the sound we secure from the set — and gives the actors space to prepare — but Jason’s scripts are always so well-written that they shouldn’t need replacement lines in post.”

Ear Candy Post’s Perry Robertson and Scott Sanders, MPSE, served as co-supervising sound editors on the project, which was re-recorded on Deluxe Stage 2 — the former Glen Glenn Sound facility — by Chris Jenkins handling dialogue and music and Jeremy Peirson, CAS, overseeing sound effects. Sebastian Sheehan Visconti was sound effects editor.

With as many as two dozen actors in a busy scene, Morrow soon realized that he would have to mic all of the key campaign team members. “I knew that we were shooting a political film like Robert Altman’s All the President’s Men or [Michael Ritchie’s] The Candidate, so I referred back to the multichannel techniques pioneered by Jim Webb and his high-quality dialogue recordings. I elected to use up to 18 radio mics for those ensemble scenes,” including Reitman’s long opening sequence in which the audience learns who the key participants are on the campaign trail. I did this “while recording each actor on a separate track, together with a guide mono mix of the key participants for the picture editor Stefan Grube.”

Reitman is well known for his films’ elaborate opening title sequences and often highly subjective narration from a main character. His motion pictures typically revolve around characters that are brashly self-confident, but then begin to rethink their lives and responsibilities. He is also reported to be a fan of ‘70s-style cinema verite, which uses a meandering camera and overlapping dialogue to draw the audience into an immersive reality. The Front Runner’s soundtrack is layered with dialogue, together with a constant hum of conversation — from the principals to the press and campaign staff. Since Bai and Carson have written political speeches, Reitman had them on set to ensure that conversations sounded authentic.

Even though there might be four or so key participants speaking in a scene, “Jason wants to capture all of the background dialogue between working press and campaign staff, for example,” Morrow continues.

“He briefed all of the other actors on what the scene was about so they could develop appropriate conversations and background dialogue while the camera roamed around the room. In other words, if somebody was on set they got a mic — one track per actor. In addition to capturing everything, Jason wanted me to have fun with the scene; he likes a solid mix for the crew, dailies and picture editorial, so I gave him the best I could get. And we always had the ability to modify it later in post production from the iso mic channels.”

Morrow recorded the pre-fader individual tracks at between 10dB and 15dB lower than the main mix, “which I rode hot, knowing that we could go back and correct it in post. Levels on that main mix were within ±5 dB most of the time,” he says. Assisting Morrow during the 40-day shoot, which took place in and around Atlanta and Savannah, were Collin Heath and Craig Dollinger, who also served as the boom operator on a handful of scenes.

The mono production mix was also useful for the camera crew, says Morrow. “They sometimes had problems understanding the dramatic focus of a particular scene. In other words, ‘Where does my eye go?’ When I fed my mix to their headphones they came to understand which actors we were spotlighting from the script. This allowed them to follow that overview.”

Production Tools
Morrow used a Behringer Midas Model M32R digital console that features 16 rear-channel inputs and 16 more inputs via a stage box that connects to the M32R via a Cat-5 cable. The console provided pre-fader and mixed outputs to Morrow’s pair of 64-track Sound Devices 970 hard-disk recorders — a main and a parallel backup — via Audinate Dante digital ports. “I also carried my second M32R mixer as a spare,” Morrow says. “I turned over the Compact Flash media at the end of each day’s shooting and retained the contents of the 970’s internal 1TB SSDs and external back-up drives until the end of post, just in case. We created maybe 30GB of data per recorder per day.”

Color coding helps Morrow mix dialogue more accurately.

For easy level checking, the two recorders with front-panel displays were mounted on Morrow’s production sound cart directly above his mixing console. “When I can, I color code the script to highlight the dialogue of key characters in specific scenes,” he says. “It helps me mix more accurately.”

RF transmitters comprised two dozen Lectrosonics SSM Micro belt-pack units — Morrow bought six or seven more for the film — linked to a bank of Lectrosonics Venue2 modular four-channel and three-channel VR receivers. “I used my collection of Sanken COS-11D miniature lavalier microphones for the belt packs. They are my go-to lavs with clean audio output and excellent performance. I also have some DPA lavaliers, if needed.”

With 20+ RF channels simultaneously in use within metropolitan centers, frequency coordination was an essential chore to ensure consistent operation for all radio systems. “The Lectrosonics Venue receivers can auto-assign radio-mic frequencies,” Morrow explains. “The best way to do this is to have everything turned off, and then one by one let the system scan the frequency spectrum. When it finds a good channel, you assign it to the first microphone and then repeat that process for the next radio transmitters. I try to keep up with FCC deliberations [on diminishing RF spectrum space], but realize that companies who manufacture this equipment also need to be more involved. So, together, I feel good that we’ll have the separation we all need for successful shoots.”

Morrow’s setup.

Morrow also made several location recordings on set. “I mounted a couple of lavaliers on bumpers to secure car-byes and other sounds for supervising sound editor Perry Robertson, as well as backgrounds in the house during a Labor Day gathering. We also recorded Vera Farmiga playing the piano during one scene — she is actually a classically-trained pianist — using a DPA Model 5099 microphone (which I also used while working on A Star is Born). But we didn’t record much room tone, because we didn’t find it necessary.”

During scenes at a campaign rally, Morrow provided a small PA system that comprised a couple of loudspeakers mounted on a balcony and a vocal microphone on the podium. “We ran the system at medium-levels, simply to capture the reverb and ambiance of the auditorium,” he explains, “but not so much that it caused problems in post production.”

Summarizing his experience on The Front Runner, Morrow offers that Reitman, and his production partner Helen Estabrook, bring a team spirit to their films. “The set is a highly collaborative environment. We all hang out with one another and share birthdays together. In my experience, Jason’s films are always from the heart. We love working with him 120%. The low point of the shoot is going home!”


Mel Lambert has been involved with production and post on both sides of the Atlantic for more years than he cares to remember. He is principal of Content Creators, a Los Angeles-based copywriting and editorial service, and can be reached at mel.lambert@content-creators.com. He is also a long-time member of the UK’s National Union of Journalists.

DP Chat: Polly Morgan, ASC, BSC

Cinematographer Polly Morgan, who became an active member of the ASC in July, had always been fascinated with films, but she got the bug for filmmaking as a teenager growing up in Great Britain. A film crew shot at her family’s farmhouse.

“I was fixated by the camera and cranes that were being used, and my journey toward becoming a cinematographer began.”

We reached out to Morgan recently to talk about her process and about working on the FX show Legion.

What inspires you artistically? And how do you simultaneously stay on top of advancing technology that serves your vision?
I am inspired by the world around me. As a cinematographer you learn to look at life in a unique way, noticing elements that you might not have been aware of before. Reflections, bouncing light, colors, atmosphere and so many more. When I have time off, I love to travel and experience different cultures and environments.

I spend my free time reading various periodicals to stay of top of the latest developments in technology. Various publications, such as the ASC’s magazine, help to not only highlight new tools but also people’s experiences with them. The filmmaking community is united by this exploration, and there are many events where we are able to get together and share our thoughts on a new piece of equipment. I also try to visit different vendors to see demos of new advances in technology.

Has any recent or new technology changed the way you work?
Live on-set grading has given me more control over the final image when I am not available for the final DI. Over the last two years, I have worked more on episodic television, and I am often unable to go and sit with the colorist to do the final grade, as I am working on another project. Live grading enables me to get specific with adjustments on the set, and I feel confident that with good communication, these adjustments will be part of the final look of the project.

How do you go about choosing the right camera and lenses to achieve the right look for a story?
I like to vary my choice of camera and lenses depending on what story I am telling.
When it comes to cameras, resolution is an important factor depending on how the project is going to be broadcast and if there are specific requirements to be met from the distributor, or if we are planning to do any unique framing that might require a crop into the sensor.

Also, ergonomics play a part. Am I doing a handheld show, or mainly one in studio mode? Or are there any specifications that make the camera unique that will be useful for that particular project? For example, I used the Panasonic VariCam when I needed an extremely sensitive sensor for night driving around downtown Los Angeles. Lenses are chosen for contrast and resolution and speed. Also, sometimes size and weight play a part, especially if we are working in tight locations or doing lots of handheld.

What are some best practices, or rules, you try to follow on each job?
Every job is different, but I always try to root my work in naturalism to keep it grounded. I feel like a relatable story can have the most impact on its viewer, so I want to make images that the audience can connect with and be drawn into emotionally. As a cinematographer, we want our work to be invisible but yet always support and enhance the narrative.

On set, I always ensure a calm and pleasant working environment. We work long and bizarre hours, and the work is demanding so I always strive to make it an enjoyable and safe experience for everyone,

Explain your ideal collaboration with the director when setting the look of a project.
It is always my aim to get a clear idea of what the director is imagining when they describe a certain approach. As we are all so different, it is really about establishing a language that can be a shorthand on set and help me to deliver exactly what they want. It is invaluable to look at references together, whether that is art, movies, photography or whatever.

As well as the “look,” I feel it is important to talk about pace and rhythm and how we will choose to represent that visually. The ebb and flow of the narrative needs to be photographed, and sometimes directors want to do that in the edit, or sometimes we express it through camera movement and length of shots. Ideally, I will always aim to have a strong collaboration with a director during prep and build a solid relationship before production begins.

How do you typically work with a colorist?
This really varies from project to project, depending if I am available to sit in during the final DI. Ideally, I would work with the colorist from pre-production to establish and build the look of the show. I would take my camera tests to the post house and work on building a LUT together that would be the base look that we work off while shooting.

I like to have an open dialogue with them during the production stage so they are aware and involved in the evolution of the images.

During post, this dialogue continues as VFX work starts to come in and we start to bounce the work between the colorist and the VFX house. Then in the final grade, I would ideally be in the room with both the colorist and the director so we can implement and adjust the look we have established from the start of the show.

Tell us about FX’s Legion. How would you describe the general look of the show?
Legion is a love letter to art. It is inspired by anything from modernist pop art to old Renaissance masters. The material is very cerebral, and there are many mental planes or periods of time to express visually, so it is a very imaginative show. It is a true exploration of color and light and is a very exciting show to be a part of.

How early did you get involved in the production?
I got involved with Legion starting in Season 2. I work alongside Dana Gonzales, ASC, who established the look of the show in Season one with creator Noah Hawley. My work begins during the production stage when I worked with various directors both prepping and shooting their individual episodes.

Any challenging scenes that you are particularly proud of how it turned out?
Most of the scenes in Legion take a lot of thought to figure out… contextually as well as practically. In Season 2, Episode 2, a lot of the action takes place out in the desert. After a full day, we still had a night shoot to complete with very little time. Instead of taking time to try to light the whole desert, I used one big soft overhead and then lit the scene with flashlights on the character’s guns and headlights of the trucks. I added blue streak filters to create multiple horizontal blue flares from each on-camera source (headlights and flashlights) that provided a very striking lighting approach.

FX’s Legion, Season 2, Episode 2

With the limited hours available, we didn’t have enough time to complete all the coverage we had planned so, instead, we created one very dynamic camera move that started overhead looking down at the trucks and then swooped down as the characters ran out to approach the mysterious object in the scene. We followed the characters in the one move, ending in a wide group shot. With this one master, we only ended up needing a quick reverse POV to complete the scene. The finished product was an inventive and exciting scene that was a product of limitations.

What’s your go-to gear (camera, lens, mount/accessories you can’t live without)?
I don’t really have any go-to gear except a light meter. I vary the equipment I use depending on what story I am telling. LED lights are becoming more and more useful, especially when they are color- and intensity-controllable and battery-operated. When you need just a little more light, these lights are quick to throw in and often save the day!