Arraiy 4.11.19

Category Archives: TV Series

Hobo Films’ Howard Bowler on new series The System

By Randi Altman

Howard Bowler, the founder of New York City-based audio post house Hobo
Audio, has launched Hobo Films, a long-form original content development company.

Howard Bowler’s many faces

Bowler is also the founder and president of Green Point Creative, a marijuana-advocacy branding agency focused on the war on drugs and changing drug laws. And it is this topic that inspired Hobo Films’ first project, a dramatic series called The System. It features actress Lolita Foster from Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black.

Bowler has his hand in many things these days, and with those paths colliding, what better time to reach out to find out more?

After years working in audio post, what led you to want to start an original long-form production arm?
I’ve always wanted to do original scripted content and have been collecting story ideas for years. As our audio post business has grown, it’s provided us a platform to develop this related, exciting and creative business.

You are president/founder of Green Point Creative. Can you tell us more about that initiative?
Green Point Creative is an advocacy platform that was born out of personal experience. After an arrest followed by release (not me), I researched the history of marijuana prohibition. What I found was shocking. Hobo VP Chris Stangroom and I started to produce PSAs through Green Point to share what we had learned. We brought in Jon Mackey to aid in this mission, and he’s since moved up the ranks of Hobo into production management. The deeper we explored this topic, the more we realized there was a much larger story to tell and one that couldn’t be told through PSAs alone.

You wrote the script for the show The System? Can you tell our readers what the show is about?
The show’s storyline plots the experiences of a white father raising his bi-racial son, set against the backdrop of the war on drugs. The tone of the series is a cross between Marvel Comics and Schindler’s List. What happens to these kids in the face of a nefarious system that has them in its grips, how they get out, fight back, etc.

What about the shoot? How involved were you on set? What cameras were used? Who was your DP?
I was very involved the whole time working with the director Michael Cruz. We had to change lines of the script on set if we felt they weren’t working, so everyone had to be flexible. Our DP was David Brick, an incredible talent, driven and dedicated. He shot on the Red camera and the footage is stunning.

Can you talk about working with the director?
I met Michael Cruz when we worked together at Grey, a global advertising agency headquartered in NYC. I told him back then that he was born to direct original content. At the time he didn’t believe me, but he does now.

L-R: DP David Brick and director Mike Cruz on set

Mike’s directing style is subtle but powerful; he knows how to frame a shot and get the performance. He also knows how to build a formidable crew. You’ve got to have a dedicated team in place to pull these things off.

What about the edit and the post? Where was that done? What gear was used?
Hobo is a natural fit for this type of creative project and is handling all the audio post as well as the music score that is being composed by Hobo staffer and musician Oscar Convers.

Mike Cruz tapped the resources of his company, Drum Agency to handle the first phase of editing and they pulled together the rough cuts. For final edit, we connected with Oliver Parker. Ollie was just coming off two seasons of London Kills, a police thriller that’s been released to great reviews. Oliver’s extraordinary editing elevated the story in ways I hadn’t predicted. All editing was done on an Avid Media Composer. Music was composed by Hobo staffer Oscar Convers.

The color grade via Juan Salvo at TheColourSpace using Blackmagic Resolve. [Editor’s Note: We reached out to Salvo to find out more. “We got the original 8K Red files from editorial and conformed that on our end. The look was really all about realism. There’s a little bit of stylized lighting in some scenes, and some mixed-temperature lights as well. Mostly, the look was about finding a balance between some of the more stylistic elements and the very naturalist, almost cinéma vérité tone of the series.

“I think ultimately we tried to make it true-to-life with a little bit of oomph. A lot of it was about respecting and leaning into the lighting that DP Dave Brick developed on the shoot. So during the dialogue scenes, we tend to have more diffuse light that feels really naturalist and just lets the performances take center stage, and in some of the more visual scenes we have some great set piece lighting — police lights and flashlights — that really drive the style of those shots.”]

Where can people see The System?
Click here view the first five minutes of the pilot and learn more about the series.

Any other shows in the works?
Yes, we have several properties in development and to help move these projects forward, we’ve brought on Tiffany Jackman to lead these efforts. She’s a gifted producer who spent 10 years honing her craft at various agencies, as well as working on various films. With her aboard, we can now create an ecosystem that connects all the stories.

DP Chat: The Man in the High Castle’s Gonzalo Amat

By Randi Altman

Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle is based on the 1962 Phillip K. Dick novel, which asks the question: “What would it look like if the Germans and Japanese won World War II?” It takes a look at the Nazi and Japanese occupation of portions of the United States and the world. But it’s a Philip K. Dick story, so you know there is more to it than that… like an alternate reality.

The series will premiere its fourth and final season this fall on the streaming service. We recently reached out to cinematographer Gonzalo Amat, who was kind enough to talk to us about workflow and more.

How did you become interested in cinematography?
Since I was very young, I had a strong interest in photography and was shooting stills as long as I can remember. Then, when I was maybe 10 or 12 years old, I discovered that movies also had a photographic aspect. I didn’t think about doing it until I was already in college studying communications, and that is when I decided to make it my career.

What inspires you artistically? And how do you simultaneously stay on top of advancing technology?
Artistically, I get inspiration from a lot of sources, such as photography, film, literature, painting or any visual medium. I try to curate what I consume, though. I believe that everything we feed our brain somehow shows up in the work we do, so I am very careful about consuming films, books and photography that feed the story that I will be working on. I think any creation is inspiration. It can be all the way from a film masterpiece to a picture drawn by a kid, music, performance art, historical photographs or testimonies, too.

About staying on top: I read trade magazines and stay educated through seminars and courses, but at some point, it’s also about using those tools. So I try to test the tools instead of reading about them. Almost any rental place or equipment company will let you try newer tools. If I’m shooting, we try to schedule a test for a particular piece of equipment we want to use, during a light day.

What new technology has changed the way you work?
The main new technology would be the migration of most projects to digital. That has changed the way we work on set and collaborate with the directors, since everyone can now see, on monitors, something closely resembling the final look of the project.

A lot of people think this is a bad thing that has happened, but for me, it actually allows more clear communication about the concrete aspects of a sometimes very personal vision. Terms like dark, bright, or colorful are very subjective, so having a reference is a good point to continue the conversation.

Also, digital technology has helped use more available light on interiors and use less light on exterior nights. Still, it hasn’t reached the latitude of film, where you could just let the windows burn. It’s trickier for exterior day shots, where I think you end up needing more control. I would also say that the evolution of visual effects as a more invisible tool has helped us achieve a lot more from a storytelling perspective and has affected the way we shoot scenes in general.

What are some of your best practices, or rules you try to follow on each job?
Each project is different, so I try to learn how that particular project will be. But there are some time-tested rules that I try to implement. The main line is to always go for the story; every answer is always in the script. Another main rule is communication. So being open about questions, even if they seem silly. It’s always good to ask.

Another rule is listening to ideas. People that end up being part of my team are very experienced and sometimes have solutions to problems that come up. If you are open to ideas, more ideas will come, and people will do their jobs with more intention and commitment. Gratitude, respect, collaboration, communication and being conscious about safety is important and part of my process.

Gonzalo Amat on set

Explain your ideal collaboration with the director when setting the look of a project.
Every director is different, so I look at each new project as an opportunity to learn. As a DP, you have to learn and adapt, since through your career you will be asked for different levels of involvement. Because of my interest in storytelling, I personally prefer a bit more of a hands-off approach from directors; talking more about story and concepts, where we collaborate setting up the shoots for covering a scene, and same with lighting: talking moods and concepts that get polished as we are on set. Some directors will be very specific, and that is a challenge because you have to deliver what is inside their heads and hopefully make it better. I still enjoy this challenge, because it also makes you work for someone’s vision.

Ideally, developing the look of a project comes from reading the script together and watching movies and references together. This is when you can say “dark like this” or “moody like this” because visual concepts are very subjective, and so is color. From then on, it’s all about breaking up the script and the visual tone and arc of the story, and subsequently all the equipment and tools for executing the ideas. Lots of meetings as well as walking the locations with just the director and DP are very useful.

How would you describe the overarching look of the show?
Basically, the main visual concept of this project is based in film noir, and our main references were The Conformist and Blade Runner. As we went along, we added some more character-based visual ideas inspired by projects like In the Mood for Love and The Insider for framing.

The main idea is to visually portray the worlds of the characters through framing and lighting. Sometimes, we play it the way the script tells us; sometimes we counterpoint visually what it says, so we can make the audience respond in an emotional way. I see cinematography as the visual music that makes people respond emotionally to different moods. Sometimes it’s more subtle and sometimes more obvious. We prefer to not be very intrusive, even though it’s not a “realist” project.

How early did you get involved in the production?
I start four or five weeks before the season. Even if I’m not doing the first episode, I will still be there to prepare new sets and do some tests for new equipment or characters. Preparation is key in a project like this, because once we start with the production the time is very limited.

Did you start out on the pilot? Did the look change from season to season at all?
James Hawkinson did the pilot, and I came in when the series got picked up. He set up the main visual concepts, and when it came to series I adapted some of the requirements from the studio and the notes from Ridley Scott into the style we see now.

The look has been evolving from season to season, as we feel we can be bolder with the visual language of the show. If you look at the pilot all the way to the end of Season 3, or Season 4, which is filming, you can definitely see a change, even though it still feels like the same project — the language has been polished and distilled. I think we have reached the sweet spot.

Does the look change at all when the timelines shift?
Yes, all of the timelines require a different look and approach with lighting and camera use. Also, the art design and wardrobe changes, so we combine all those subtle changes to give each world, place and timeline a different feel. We have lots of conceptual meetings, and we develop the look and feel of each timeline and place. Once these concepts are established, the team gets to work constructing the sets and needed visual elements, and then we go from there.

This is a period piece. How did that affect the look, if at all?
We have tried to give it a specific and unique look that still feels tied to the time period so, yes, the fact that this happens in our own version of the ‘60s has determined the look, feeling and language of the series. We base our aesthetics in what the real world was in 1945, which our story diverges from to form this alternate world.

The 1960s of the story are not the real 1960s because there is no USA and no free Europe, so that means most of the music and wardrobe doesn’t look like the 1960s we know. There are many Nazi and Japanese visual elements on the visuals that distinguish us from a regular 1960s look, but it still feels period.

How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses for this project?
Because we had a studio mandate to finish in 4K, the Red One with Zeiss Master Prime lenses was chosen in the pilot, so when I came on we inherited that tech. We stuck with all this for the first season, but after a few months of shooting we adapted the list and filters and lighting. On Season 2, we pushed to change to an ARRI Alexa camera, so we ended up adjusting all the equipment around this new camera and it’s characteristics — such as needing less light, so we ended up with less lighting equipment.

We also added classic Mitchell Diffusion Filters and some zooms. Lighting and grip equipment have been evolving toward less and less equipment since we light less and less. It’s a constant evolution. We also looked at some different lens options in the season breaks, but we haven’t added them because we don’t want to change our budget too much from season to season, and we use them as required.

Any challenging scenes that you are particularly proud of in Season 3?
I think the most challenging scene was the one in the Nebenwelt tunnel set. We had to have numerous meetings about what this tunnel was as a concept and then, based on the concept, find a way to execute it in a visual way. We wanted to make sure that the look of the scene matched the concepts of quantum physics within the story.

I wanted to achieve lighting that felt almost like plasma. We decided to put a mirror at the end of the tunnel with circle lighting right above it. We then created the effect of the space travel by using a blast of light — using lighting strikes with an elaborate setup that collectively used more than a million watts. It was a complex setup, but fortunately we had a lot of very talented people come together to execute it.

What’s your go-to gear (camera, lens, mount/accessories) — things you can’t live without?
On this project, I’d say it’s the 40mm lens. I don’t think this project would have the same vibe without this lens. Then, of course, I love the Technocrane, but we don’t use it every day, for budgetary and logistical reasons.

For other projects, I would say the ARRI Alexa camera and the 40mm and handheld accessories. You can do a whole movie with just those two; I have done it, and it’s liberating. But if I had an unlimited budget, I would love to use a Technocrane every day with a stabilized remote head.


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

Arraiy 4.11.19

Idris Elba and Gary Reich talk about creating Netflix’s Turn Up Charlie

By Iain Blair

Idris Elba has always excelled at playing uber-cool, uber-controlled characters — often villains and troubled souls, such as drug lord Stringer Bell on HBO’s The Wire, detective John Luther on the BBC’s Luther, and the war lord in the harrowing feature film Beasts of No Nation. No wonder everyone thinks he’d be perfect as the next uber-sexy Bond.

But there’s another, hidden side to the charismatic star. The actor has long been heavily involved in post production. Additionally, he moonlights as a DJ, the inspiration for his new Netflix show Turn Up Charlie. He trashes his super-cool image by starring as the titular Charlie, a decidedly uncool, struggling DJ and eternal bachelor, who finally gets a shot at success when he reluctantly becomes a “manny” to his famous best friend’s problem-child daughter.

The show also serves as a showcase for Elba’s self-described “nerdy” side behind the camera, his love of producing and his hands-on involvement in every aspect of post. The eight-part series is co-produced by Elba’s Green Door Pictures and Gary Reich’s Brown Eyed Boy Productions, with Elba and Reich serving as executive producers alongside Tristram Shapeero, who directs the series with Matt Lipsey.

And in a serious show of support for the show and its star, Netflix (which for the first time beat HBO in Emmy noms last year) officially launched an Emmy “For Your Consideration” campaign, with a screening and panel discussion featuring Elba.

Prior to the event, I spoke with the Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated Elba (whose credits also include the Avengers and Thor franchises, American Gangster, Star Trek Beyond, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, The Office and The Jungle Book) about his latest project, his real-life moonlighting gig as a DJ, his love of post and his upcoming role in Cats. We also spoke with his Turn Up Charlie co-creator Reich.

Let’s talk about post production on the show. How involved are you, considering you’re also starring and co-producing?
Idris Elba: We did it at The Farm in London, and I’m pretty involved in every aspect of post, though I’m not sitting in the edit suite all day long looking at every frame. But I really love the whole process, especially editing and, of course, the sound and music because of my background as a DJ. So I’ll be there checking the edits and how it’s being put together.

Then I’ll be there for all the sound mix stuff and also for the final grade, which I love too. I’m super-nerdy in that way, and I find it very satisfying to be involved in post. For most actors, post is this whole hidden, secret world that you never see or get involved in, but I’ve always been fascinated by how it all comes together… how you can manipulate a performance or the sound to totally change a scene and how it works and affects the audience. It’s really the most creative part of making a TV show or a movie, and hopefully I’ll be more and more involved in it all.

People think of you as an actor first and foremost, but you’ve been involved in producing and post for quite a while.
Elba: Yeah, I’ve always been interested in it, learning stuff as I go, and watching directors and how post works. When I directed my first film, Yardie, a couple of years ago, it was a real education, and I loved every minute of it — being involved in all the editing and working on all the elements that go into the sound mix and music. I’ve been involved in production with a lot of the shows I’ve done, like Luther and Five by Five and now this one, and I really enjoy it.

Gary, any surprises working with Idris? And what was the schedule like?
Gary Reich: For someone so busy across so many different mediums, it was amazing how he was always able to give 100% in the moment. He’s like a powerful lighthouse — when he shines on you and your production, you get a dazzling 150% of him. As a co-executive producer, he was involved across many surprisingly small details, as well as the larger picture. We edited at The Farm, and the offline was what you’d expect — a week for each half-hour episode. The music was extremely complex, so once the pictures were locked, there was a long process of auditioning tracks.

Who edited, and what were the main challenges?
Reich: Gary Dollner edited block 1 (Episodes 1-4) with the block 1 director, Tristram Shapeero. Pete Drinkwater edited block 2 (Episodes 5-8) with the block 2 director, Matt Lipsey. The main challenges were that Idris wanted us to approach the edit like a DJ, where the rhythm of each episode’s scene-to-scene transitions would be similar to what a DJ achieves mixing between tracks. Luckily, our editors more than rose to that challenge.

Talk about the importance of sound and music for you and Idris on this. Where did you mix?
Reich: We also mixed at The Farm. Sound and music were extremely key to the show as it is, after all, a show about, created by and scored by a DJ. The score was composed by DJ James Lavelle, so Idris and he had various meetings in the edit where it was clear they spoke the same language. It was important to Idris that the character themes were all electronic rather than acoustic, even the very emotional beats. James and his team adapted accordingly, and we have some amazing new sounds in the show.

Also, one of the key series arcs was a track that Idris’ character Charlie had had a big one-off hit with in the ’90s, that then gets remixed across three episodes by our female Calvin Harris character, played by Piper Perabo, and then gets dropped at the Latitude Festival. It was key that we were authentic, as we showed the track coming together at different stages across different scenes. The mix was all done at The Farm.

I noticed some VFX credits. What was involved, who did them?
Reich: We had a lot of mobile phone and some Skype screens that needed shots compositing in, and some posters too, as well as needing to build a nightclub onto the back of a beach bar. They were all done by The Farm.

Who was the colorist and what was involved?
Reich: Perry Gibbs was the colorist. Because we shot on anamorphic lenses, but also had to use the Red cameras in order to meet certain Netflix technical requirements, there were challenges in the grade, but they were worth it, as the end result was particularly deep.

Idris, Charlie is a major U-turn from your usual self-assured characters. You co-created this show with Gary for yourself, so is this actually the real you?
Elba: (Laughs). Yeah, it is the closest to the real me. I’m not anything like Luther or the other characters I’m best known for. I’m closer to Charlie than anything else. I really wanted to show what the real world of DJs is like, and we spent a lot of time in post working on the music. But the truth is, no one really cares about what DJs go through as long as the music’s good, so I needed to add some heart and other elements to it, and it gradually became more about parenting and all those challenges. I’m a parent, so I brought all those experiences and stories to it and merged the two worlds. It ended up being a bit about the world of music and a lot about people.

Many people probably don’t know that you actually started out as a DJ in London before you got into acting.
Elba: Right, and partly thanks to this, I seem to be getting a lot more exposure for my DJ’ing these days, especially after doing “the wedding” [Elba was asked by Prince Harry to DJ at his wedding to Meghan Markle], and now I’ll be DJ’ing at Coachella, and then I’m doing the Electric Daisy Carnival in Vegas and some other gigs. So if the acting thing falls apart, I’m all set!

DJ’ing was really my first love, and by the time I was 13, 14, I was DJ’ing for house parties and whatnot, and then I met my drama teacher, and DJ’ing went out the window. But the truth is, I kept DJ’ing alongside my acting career, and I just love doing it. It grounds me, and I love music. What I chose not to do is market my DJ’ing as part of my acting career, but recently it’s become this crazy crossroads of all this stuff happening, what with this show and Coachella and so on. It all looks like a brilliant marketing plan, but it’s not. I’m just not that clever!

When you get back to London, you’ll keep filming Tom Hooper’s movie adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, which is due out later this year. What can you tell us about it?
Elba: I can’t reveal too much, but it’s going great. I get to play another villain, Macavity, which is always fun for me. Tom’s got a really interesting look and take on it, and he’s assembled this amazing cast: Taylor Swift, who I got on great with, and Jennifer Hudson and James Corden. He’s so funny. And Ian McKellen. It’s going to be pretty special.

Aren’t you playing another villain in Hobbs & Shaw, the Fast & Furious spinoff due out in August?
Elba: Yeah, I play Brixton Lore, this cyber-enhanced criminal mastermind who’s going at it with Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham. Director David Leitch did Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2, and we did some really wild stuff. I’m really excited about it. It’s been a busy year.


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


The Kominsky Method‘s post brain trust: Ross Cavanaugh and Ethan Henderson

By Iain Blair

As Bette Davis famously said, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies!” But Netflix’s The Kominsky Method proves that in the hands of veteran sitcom creator Chuck Lorre — The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men and many others — there’s plenty of laughs to be mined from old age… and disease, loneliness and incontinence.

The show stars Michael Douglas as divorced, has-been actor and respected acting coach Sandy Kominsky and Alan Arkin as his longtime agent Norman Newlander. The story follows these bickering best friends as they tackle life’s inevitable curveballs while navigating their later years in Los Angeles, a city that values youth and beauty above all. Both comedic and emotional, The Kominsky Method won Douglas a Golden Globe.

Ethan Henderson and Ross Cavanaugh

The single-camera show is written by Al Higgins, David Javerbaum and Lorre, who also directed the first episode. Lorre, Higgins and Douglas executive produce the series, which is produced by Chuck Lorre Productions in association with Warner Bros. Television.

I recently spoke with associate producer Ross Cavanaugh and post coordinator Ethan Henderson about posting the show.

You are currently working on Season 2?
Ross Cavanaugh: Yes, and we’re moving along quite quickly. We’re already about three-quarters of the way through the season shooting-wise, out of the eight-show arc.

Where do you shoot, and what’s the schedule like?
Cavanaugh: We shoot mainly on the lot at Warner Bros. and then at various locations around LA. We start prepping each show one week before we start shooting, and then we get dailies the day after the first shooting day.

Our dailies lab is Picture Shop, which is right up the street in Burbank and very convenient for us. So getting footage from the set to them is quick, and they’re very fast at turning the dailies around. We usually get them by midnight the same day we drop them off,  then our editors start cutting fairly quickly after that.

Where do you do all the post?
Cavanaugh: Mainly at Picture Shop, who are very experienced in TV post work. They do all the post finishing and some of the VFX stuff — usually the smaller things, like beauty fixes and cleanup. They also do all the final color correction since DP Anette Haellmigk really wanted to work with colorist George Manno. They’ve been really great.

Ethan Henderson: We’re back and forth from the lot to Picture Shop, and once we get more heavily involved in all the post, I spend a lot of time there while we are onlining the show, coloring and doing the VFX drop-ins, and when we start the final deliverables process, since everything for Netflix comes out of there.

What are the big challenges of post production on this show, and how closely do you work with Chuck Lorre?
Cavanaugh: As with any TV show, you’re always on a very tight deadline, and there are a lot of moving parts to deal with very quickly. While our prolific showrunner Chuck Lorre is busy with all the projects he has going — especially with all the writing — he always makes time for us. He’s very passionate about the cut and is extremely on top of things.

I’d say the challenges on this show are actually fairly minimal. Basically, we ran a pretty tight ship on the first season, and now I’d say it’s a well-oiled machine. We haven’t had any big problems or surprises in post, which can happen.

Let’s talk about editing. You had two editors for Season 1 in Matthew Barbato and Gina Sansom. I assume that’s because of the time factor. How does that work?
Cavanaugh: Each editor has their own assistant editor — that was true in Season One (Matthew with Jack Cunningham and Gina with Barb Steele) and in Season two (Steven Lang with Romeo Rubio and Gina with Rahul Das). They cut separately and work on an odds-and-evens schedule, each doing every other episode. We all get together to watch screenings of the Director’s Cut, usually in the editorial bay.

What are the big editing challenges?
Cavanaugh: We have a pretty big cast, and there’s a ton of jokes and stuff going on all the time. In addition to Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin, the actors are so experienced. They give such great performances — there’s a lot of material for the editors to cut from. To be honest, the scripts are all so tight that I think one of the challenges is knowing when to cut out a joke, to serve the pacing of an episode.

This isn’t a VFX-driven show, but there are some visual effects shots. Can you explain?
Cavanaugh: We do a lot of driving scenes and use 24frame.com, who have this really good wraparound HD projection technology, so we pretty much shoot all our car scenes on the stage.

Henderson: Once in a while, we’ll pick up some exterior or establishing shots on a freeway using doubles in the cars. All the plates are picked ahead of time. Occasionally, for the sake of continuity, we’ll have to replace a plate in the background and put a different section of the plate in because too many cars ran by, and it didn’t match up in the edit.

That’s one of the things that comes up every so often. The other big thing is that both of the leads wear glasses, so reflections of crew and equipment can become an issue; we have to deal with all that and clean it up.

Cavanaugh: We don’t use many big VFX shots, and we can’t reveal much about what happens in the new season, but sometimes there’s stuff like the scene in season one where one of the characters threw some firecrackers at Michael Douglas’ feet. We obviously weren’t going to throw real ones at Michael Douglas, although I think he’d have sucked it up if we’d done it that way! We were shooting in a residential neighborhood at night and we couldn’t set off real ones because they are very loud, so we ended up doing it all with VFX. FuseFx handled the workload for the heavier VFX work.

Henderson: There was a big shot in the pilot where we did a lot of shot extensions in a restaurant where Sandy Kominsky (Douglas) and Nancy Travis’ character are having coffee. It was this big sweeping pan down over the city.

Can you talk about the importance of sound and music?
Cavanaugh: They both play a key role, and we have a great team that includes music editor Joe Deveau, supervising sound editor Lou Thomas, and sound mixers Yuri Reese and Bill Smith. The sound recording quality we get on set is always great, so that means we only need very minimal ADR. The whole sound mix is done here on the lot at Warners.

Our composer, Jeff Cardoni, worked with Chuck on Young Sheldon, and he’s really on top of getting all the new cues for the show. We basically have two versions of our main title sequence music cues — one is very bombastic and in-your-face, and the other is a bit more subtle — and it’s funny how it broke down in the first season. The guy who cut the pilot and the odd episodes went with the more bombastic version, while the second editor on the even episodes preferred the softer cues, so I’ll be curious to see how all that breaks down in the new season.

How important is all the coloring on this?
Cavanaugh: Very important. After we do all the online, we ship it over to George at Picture Shop and spend about a day and a half on it. The DP either comes in or gets a file, and she gives her notes. Then we’ll play it for Chuck. We’re in the HDR world with Dolby Vision, and it makes it look so beautiful — but then we have to do the standard pass on it as well.

I know you can’t reveal too much about the new season, but what can fans expect?
Henderson: They’re getting a continuation of these two characters’ journey together — growing old and everything that comes with that. I think it feels like a very natural extension of the first season.

Cavanaugh: In terms of the post process, I feel like we’re a Swiss watch now. We’re ticking along very smoothly. Sometimes post can be a nightmare and full of problems, so it’s great to have it all under control.


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.


DP Chat: The Village cinematographer William Rexer

By Randi Altman

William Rexer is a cinematographer who has worked on documentaries, music videos, commercials and narratives — both comedies and dramas. He’s frequently collaborated with writer/director Ed Burns (Friends With Kids, Newlyweds, Summertime). Recently, he’s directed photography on several series including The Get Down, The Tick, Sneaky Pete and the new NBC drama The Village.

He sat down with us to answer some questions about his love of cinematography, his process and The Village, which follow a diverse group of people living in the same apartment building in Brooklyn.

The set of The Village. Photo: Peter Kramer

How did you become interested in cinematography?
When I was a kid, my mother had a theater company and my father was an agent/producer. I grew up sleeping backstage. When I was a teen, I was running a followspot (light) for Cab Calloway. I guess there was no escaping some job in this crazy business!

My father would check out 16mm movies from the New York City public library — Chaplin, Keaton — and that would be our weekend night entertainment. When I was in 8th grade, an art cinema started in my hometown; it is now called the Cinema Arts Center in Huntington, New York. It showed cinema from all over the world, including Bergman, Fellini, Jasny. I began to see the world through films and fell in love.

What inspires you artistically?
I love going to the movies, the theater and art galleries. Films like Roma and Cold War make me have faith in the world. What mostly inspires me is checking out what my peers are up to. Tim Ives, ASC, and Tod Campbell are two friends that I love to watch. Very impressive guys. David Mullen, ASC, and Eric Moynier are doing great work on Mrs. Maisel. I guess I would say watching my peers and their work inspires me.

NBC’s The Village

How do you stay on top of advancing technology tools for achieving your vision on set or in post?
The cameras and post workflow change every few months. I check in with the rental houses to stay on top of gear. Panavision, Arri Rental, TCS, Keslow and Abel are great resources. I also stay in touch with post houses. My friends at Harbor and Technicolor are always willing to help create LUTs, evaluate cameras and lenses.

Has any recent or new technology changed the way you work?
The introduction of the Red One MX and the ARRI D-20 changed a lot of things. They made shooting high-quality images affordable and cleaner for the environment. It put 35mm size sensors out there and gave a lot of young people a chance to create.

The introduction of large-format cameras, the Red Monstro 8K VV, the ARRI LF and 65, and the Sony Venice have made my life more interesting. All these sensors are fantastic, and the new color spaces we get to work with like Red’s IPP2 are truly astounding. I like having control of depth of field and controlling where the audience looks.

What are some of your best practices or rules you try to follow on each job?
I try my best to shoot tests, create a LUT in the test phase and take the footage through the entire process and see how it holds up. I make sure that all my monitors are calibrated at the post house to match; that gets us all on the same page. Then, I’ll adjust the LUT after a few days of shooting in the field, using the LUT as a film stock and light to it. I watch dailies, give notes and try to get in with colorist/timer and work with them.

Will Rexer (center) with showrunner Mike Daniels and director Minkie Spiro. Photo: Jennifer Rhoades

Tell us about The Village. How would you describe the general look of the show?
The look of The Village is somewhere between romantic realism and magical realism. It is a world that could be. Our approach was to thread that line between real and the potential — warm and inviting and full of potential.

Can you talk about your collaboration with the showrunner when setting the look of a project?
Mike Daniels, Minkie Spiro, Jessica Rhoades and I looked at a ton of photographs and films to find our look. The pilot designer Ola Maslik and the series designer Neil Patel created warm environments for me.

How early did you get involved in the production?
I had three weeks of prep for the pilot, and I worked with Minkie and Ola finding locations and refining the look.

How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses to achieve the look?
The show required a decent amount of small gimbal work, so we chose the Red Monstro 8K VV using Red’s IPP2 color space. I love the camera, great look, great functionality and my team has customized the accessories to make our work on set effortless.

We used the Sigma Cine PL Primes with 180mm Leica R, Nikon 200 T2, Nikkor Zero Optik 58mm T1.2, Angenieux HR 25-250mm and some other special optics. I looked at other full-frame lenses but really liked the Sigma lenses and their character. These lenses are a nice mix of roundness and warmth and consistency.

What was your involvement with post? Who supported your vision from dailies through final grade? Have you worked with this facility and/or colorists on past projects?
Dailies were through Harbor Picture Company. I love these guys. I have worked with Harbor since they started, and they are total pros. They have helped me create LUTs for many projects, including Public Morals.

The final post for The Village was done in LA at NBC/Universal. Craig Budrick has done a great job coloring the show. I do wish that I could be in the room, but that’s not always possible.

What’s most satisfying to you about this show?
I am very proud of the show and its message. It’s a romantic vision of the world. TV and cinema often go to the dark side. I like going there, but I do think we need to be reminded of our better selves and our potential.


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


DP Tom Curran on Netflix’s Tidying Up With Marie Kondo

By Iain Blair

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.”

Tom Curran

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.


Hulu’s PEN15: Helping middle school sound funny

By Jennifer Walden

Being 13 years old once was hard enough, but the creators of the Hulu series PEN15 have relived that uncomfortable age — braces and all — a second time for the sake of comedy.

James Parnell

Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle might be in their 30s, but they convincingly play two 13-year-old BFFs journeying through the perils of 7th grade. And although they’re acting alongside actual teenagers, it’s not Strangers With Candy grown-up-interfacing-with-kids kind of weird — not even during the “first kiss” scene. The awkwardness comes from just being 13 and having those first-time experiences of drinking, boyfriends, awkward school dances and even masturbation (the topic of focus in Episode 3). Erskine, Konkle and co-showrunner Sam Zvibleman hilariously capture all of that cringe-worthy coming-of-age content in their writing on PEN15.

The show is set in the early 2000s, a time when dial-up Internet and the Sony Discman were prevailing technology. The location is a non-descript American suburb that is relatable in many ways to many people, and that is one way the show transports the audience back to their early teenage years.

At Monkeyland Audio in Glendale, California, supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer James Parnell and his team worked hard to capture that almost indescribable nostalgic essence that the showrunners were seeking. Monkeyland was responsible for all post sound editorial, including Foley, ADR, final 5.1 surround mixing and stereo fold-downs for each episode. Let’s find out more from Parnell.

I happened to watch Episode 3, “Ojichan,” with my mom, and it was completely awkward. It epitomized the growing pains of the teenage years, which is what this series captures so well.
Well, that was an awkward one to mix as well. Maya (Erskine) and Anna (Konkle) were in the room with me while I was mixing that scene! Obviously, the show is an adult comedy that targets adults. We all ended up joking about it during the mix — especially about the added Foley sound that was recorded.

The beauty of this show is that it has the power to take something that might otherwise be thought of as, perhaps, inappropriate for some, and humanize it. All of us went through that period in our lives and I would agree that the show captures that awkwardness in a perfect and humorous way.

The writers/showrunners also star. I’m sure they were equally involved with post as well as other aspects of the show. How were they planning to use sound to help tell their story?
Parnell: In terms of the post schedule, I was brought on very early. We were doing spotting sessions to pre-locked picture, for Episode 1 and Episode 3. From the get-go, they were very specific about how they wanted the show to sound. I got the vibe that they were going for that Degrassi/Afterschool Special feeling but kept in the year 2000 — not the original Degrassi of the early ‘90s.

For example, they had a very specific goal for what they wanted the school to sound like. The first episode takes place on the first day of 7th grade and they asked if we could pitch down the school bell so it sounds clunky and have the hallways sound sparse. When class lets out, the hallway should sound almost like a relief.

Their direction was more complex than “see a school hallway, hear a school hallway.” They were really specific about what the school should sound like and specific about what the girls’ neighborhoods should sound like — Anna’s family in the show is a bit better off than Maya’s family so the neighborhood ambiences reflect that.

What were some specific sounds you used to capture the feel of middle school?
The show is set in 2000, and they had some great visual cues as throwbacks. In Episode 4 “Solo,” Maya is getting ready for the school band recital and she and her dad (a musician who’s on tour) are sending faxes back and forth about it. So we have the sound of the fax machine.

We tried to support the amazing recordings captured by the production sound team on-set by adding in sounds that lent a non-specific feeling to the school. This doesn’t feel like a California middle school; it could be anywhere in America. The same goes for the ambiences. We weren’t using California-specific birds. We wanted it to sound like Any Town, USA so the audience could connect with the location and the story. Our backgrounds editor G.W. Pope did a great job of crafting those.

For Episode 7, “AIM,” the whole thing revolves around Maya and Anna’s AOL instant messenger experience. The creatives on the show were dreading that episode because all they were working with was temp sound. They had sourced recordings of the AOL sound pack to drop into the video edit. The concern was how some of the Hulu execs would take it because the episode mostly takes place in front of a computer, while they’re on AOL chatting with boys and with each other. Adding that final layer of sound and then processing on the mix stage helped what might otherwise feel like a slow edit and a lagging episode.

The dial-up sounds, AOL sign-on sounds and instant messenger sounds we pulled from library. This series had a limited budget, so we didn’t do any field recordings. I’ve done custom recordings for higher-budget shows, but on this one we were supplementing the production sound. Our sound designer on PEN15 was Xiang Li, and she did a great job of building these scenes. We had discussions with the showrunners about how exactly the fax and dial-up should sound. This sound design is a mixture of Xiang Li’s sound effects editorial with composer Leo Birenberg’s score. The song is a needle drop called “Computer Dunk.” Pretty cool, eh?

For Episode 4, “Solo,” was the middle school band captured on-set? Or was that recorded in the studio?
There was production sound recorded but, ultimately, the music was recorded by the composer Leo Birenberg. In the production recording, the middle school kids were actually playing their parts but it was poorer than you’d expect. The song wasn’t rehearsed so it was like they were playing random notes. That sounded a bit too bad. We had to hit that right level of “bad” to sell the scene. So Leo played individual instruments to make it sound like a class orchestra.

In terms of sound design, that was one of the more challenging episodes. I got a day to mix the show before the execs came in for playback. When I mixed it initially, I mixed in all of Leo’s stems — the brass, percussion, woodwinds, etc.

Anna pointed out that the band needed to sound worse than how Leo played it, more detuned and discordant. We ended up stripping out instruments and pitching down parts, like the flute part, so that it was in the wrong key. It made the whole scene feel much more like an awkward band recital.

During the performance, Maya improvises a timpani solo. In real life, Maya’s father is a professional percussionist here in LA, and he hooked us up with a timpani player who re-recorded that part note-for-note what she played on-screen. It sounded really good, but we ended up sticking with production sound because it was Maya’s unique performance that made that scene work. So even though we went to the extremes of hiring a professional percussionist to re-perform the part, we ultimately decided to stick with production sound.

What were some of the unique challenges you had in terms of sound on PEN15?
On Episode 3, “Ojichan,” Maya is going through this process of “self-discovery” and she’s disconnecting her friendship from Anna. There’s a scene where they’re watching a video in class and Anna asks Maya why she missed the carpool that morning. That scene was like mixing a movie inside a show. I had to mix the movie, then futz that, and then mix that into the scene. On the close-ups of the 4:3 old-school television the movie would be less futzed and more like you’re in the movie, and then we’d cut back to the girls and I’d have to futz it. Leo composed 20 different stems of music for that wild life video. Mixing that scene was challenging.

Then there was the Wild Things film in Episode 8, “Wild Things.” A group of kids go over to Anna’s boyfriend’s house to watch Wild Things on VHS. That movie was risqué, so if you had an older brother or older cousin, then you might have watched it in middle school. That was a challenging scene because everyone had a different idea of how the den should sound, how futzed the movie dialogue should be, how much of the actual film sound we could use, etc. There was a specific feel to the “movie night” that the producers were looking for. The key was mixing the movie into the background and bringing the awkward flirting/conversation between the kids forward.

Did you have a favorite scene for sound?
The season finale is one of the bigger episodes. There’s a middle school dance and so there’s a huge amount of needle-drop songs. Mixing the music was a lot of fun because it was a throwback to my youth.

Also, the “AIM” episode was fun because it ended up being fun to work on — even though everyone was initially worried about it. I think the sound really brought that episode to life. From a general standpoint, I feel like sound lent itself more so than any other aspect to that episode.

The first episode was fun too. It was the first day of school and we see the girls getting ready at their own houses, getting into the carpool and then taking their first step, literally, together toward the school. There we dropped out all the sound and just played the Lit song “My Own Worst Enemy,” which gets cut off abruptly when someone on rollerblades hops in front of the girls. Then they talk about one of their classmates who grew boobs over the summer, and we have a big sound design moment when that girl turns around and then there’s another needle-drop track “Get the Job Done.” It’s all specifically choreographed with sound.

The series music supervisor Tiffany Anders did an amazing job of picking out the big needle-drops. We have a Nelly song for the middle school dance, we have songs from The Cranberries, and Lit and a whole bunch more that fit the era and age group. Tiffany did fantastic work and was great to work with.

What were some helpful sound tools that you used on PEN15?
Our dialogue editor’s a huge fan of iZotope’s RX 7, as am I. Here at Monkeyland, we’re on the beta-testing team for iZotope. The products they make are amazing. It’s kind of like voodoo. You can take a noisy recording and with a click of a button pretty much erase the issues and save the dialogue. Within that tool palette, there are lot of ways to fix a whole host of problems.

I’m a huge fan of Audio Ease’s Altiverb, which came in handy on the season finale. In order to create the feeling of being in a middle school gymnasium, I ran the needle-drop songs through Altiverb. There are some amazing reverb settings that allow you to reverse the levels that are going to the surround speakers specifically. You can literally EQ the reverb, take out 200Hz, which would make the music sound more boomy than desired.

The lobby at Monkeyland is a large cinder-block room with super-high ceilings. It has acoustics similar to a middle school gymnasium. So, we captured a few impulse responses (IR), and I used those in Altiverb on a few lines of dialogue during the school dance in the season finale. I used that on a few of the songs as well. Like, when Anna’s boyfriend walks into the gym, there was supposed to be a Limp Bizkit needle-drop but that ended up getting scrapped at the last minute. So, instead there’s a heavy-metal song and the IR of our lobby really lent itself to that song.

The show was a simple single-card Pro Tools HD mix — 256 tracks max. I’m a huge fan of Avid and the new Pro Tools 2018. My dialogue chain features Avid’s Channel Strip; McDSP SA-2; Waves De-Esser (typically bypassed unless being used); McDSP 6030 Leveling Amplifier, which does a great job at handling extremely loud dialogue and preventing it from distorting, as well as Waves WNS.

On staff, we have a fabulous ADR mixer named Jacob Ortiz. The showrunners were really hesitant to record ADR, and whenever we could salvage the production dialogue we did. But when we needed ADR, Jacob did a great job of cueing that, and he uses the Sound In Sync toolkit, including EdiCue, EdiLoad and EdiMarker.

Any final thoughts you’d like to share on PEN15?
Yes! Watch the show. I think it’s awesome, but again, I’m biased. It’s unique and really funny. The showrunners Maya, Anna and Sam Zvibleman — who also directed four episodes — are three incredibly talented people. I was honored to be able to work with them and hope to be a part of anything they work on next.


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


Alkemy X: A VFX guide to pilot season

Pilot season is an important time for visual effects companies that work in television. Pilots offer an opportunity to establish the look of key aspects of a show and, if the show gets picked up, present the potential of a long-term gig. But pilots also offer unique challenges.

Time is always short and budgetary resources are often in even shorter supply, yet expectations may be sky high. Alkemy X, which operates visual effects studios in New York and Los Angeles, has experienced the trials as well as enjoyed the fruits of pilot season, delivering effects for shows that have gone onto successful runs, including Frequency, Time After Time, Do No Harm, The Leftovers, Flesh and Bone, Outcast, Mr. Robot, Deception and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Mark Miller

We recently reached out to Mark Miller, executive producer/business development, at Alkemy X to find out how his company overcomes the obstacles of time and budget to produce great effects for hopeful, new shows.

How does visual effects production for pilots differ from a regular series?
The biggest difference between a series and a pilot is that with a pilot you are establishing the look of the show. You work in concert with the director to implement his or her vision and offer ideas on how to get there.

Typically, we work on pilots with serious needs for VFX to drive the stories. We are not often told how to get there but simply listen to the producters, interpret their vision and do our best to give it to them on screen. The quality of the visuals we create is often the difference between a pick-up and a pass.

In the case of one show I was involved with, the time and budget available made it impossible to complete all the required visual effects. As a result, the VFX supervisor decided to put the time and money they had into the most important plot points in the script and use simple tests as placeholders for less important VFX. That sold the studio and the show went to series.

Had we attempted to complete the show in its entirety, it may not have seemed as viable by the studio. Again, that was a collaborative decision made by the director, studio, VFX supervisor and VFX company.

Mr. Robot

What should studios consider in selecting a visual effects provider for a pilot?
Often the deciding factors in choosing a VFX vendor are its cost and location within an incentivized region. Usually the final arbitrator is the VFX supervisor, occasionally with restrictions as to which company he or she may use. I find that good-quality VFX companies, shops with strong creative vision and the ability to deliver the shots with little pain, are unable to meet a production’s budgets, even if they are in a favorable region. That drives productions to smaller shops and results in less-polished shows.

Shots may not be delivered on time or may not have the desired creative impact. We are all aware that, even if a pilot you work on goes to series, there is no guarantee you will get the work. These days, many pilots employ feature directors and their crew. So, when one is picked up, it usually has a whole new crew.

The other issue with pilots is time. When the shoot runs longer than anticipated, it delays the director’s cut and VFX work can’t begin until that is done. Even a one-day delay in turnover can impact the quality of the visual effects. And it’s not a matter of throwing more artists at a shot. Many shots are not shareable among multiple artists so adding more artists won’t shorten the time to completion. Visual effects are like fine-art painting; one artist can’t create the sky while another works on the background. Under the best circumstances, it is hard to deliver polished work for pilots and such delays add to the problem. With pilots, our biggest enemy is time.

The Leftovers

How do you handle staffing and workflow issues in managing short-term projects like pilots?
You need to be very smart and nimble. A big issue for New York-based studios is infrastructure. Many buildings lack enough electricity to accommodate high power demands, high-speed connectivity and even the physical space required by visual effects studios.

New York studios therefore have to be as efficient as possible with streamlined pipelines built to push work through. We are addressing this issue by increasingly relying on cloud solutions for software and infrastructure. It helps us maximize flexibility.

Staffing is also an ongoing issue. Qualified artists are in short supply. More and more, we look to schools, designed by VFX supervisors, artists and producers, for junior artists with the skills to hit the ground running.


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

By Randi Altman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colorist Lionel Barton during grading session.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russian Arm

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

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

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

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

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

Previs

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

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

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

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

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

Before and After

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before and After

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

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

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


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

Netflix hires Leon Silverman to enhance global post operation

By Adrian Pennington

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.