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Category Archives: TV Series

Mavericks VFX provides effects for Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale

By Randi Altman

Season 3 episodes of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale are available for streaming, and if you had any illusions that things would lighten up a bit for June (Elizabeth Moss) and the ladies of Gilead, I’m sorry to say you will be disappointed. What’s not disappointing is that, in addition to the amazing acting and storylines, the show’s visual effects once again play a heavy role.

Brendan Taylor

Toronto’s Mavericks VFX has created visual effects for all three seasons of the show, based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian view of the not-too-distant future. Its work has earned two Emmy nominations.

We recently reached out to Maverick’s founder and visual effects supervisor, Brendan Taylor, to talk about the new season and his workflow.

How early did you get involved in each season? What sort of input did you have regarding the shots?
The Handmaid’s Tale production is great because they involve us as early as possible. Back in Season 2, when we had to do the Fenway Park scene, for example, we were in talks in August but didn’t shoot until November. For this season, they called us in August for the big fire sequence in Episode 1, and the scene was shot in December.

There’s a lot of nice leadup and planning that goes into it. Our opinions are sought after and we’re able to provide input on what’s the best methodology to use to achieve a shot. Showrunner Bruce Miller, along with the directors, have a way of how they’d like to see it, and they’re great at taking in our recommendations. It was very collaborative and we all approach the process with “what’s best for the show” in mind.

What are some things that the showrunners asked of you in terms of VFX? How did they describe what they wanted?
Each person has a different approach. Bruce speaks in story terms, providing a broader sense of what he’s looking for. He gave us the overarching direction of where he wants to go with the season. Mike Barker, who directed a lot of the big episodes, speaks in more specific terms. He really gets into the details, determining the moods of the scene and communicating how each part should feel.

What types of effects did you provide? Can you give examples?
Some standout effects were the CG smoke in the burning fire sequence and the aftermath of the house being burned down. For the smoke, we had to make it snake around corners in a believable yet magical way. We had a lot of fire going on set, and we couldn’t have any actors or stunt person near it due to the size, so we had to line up multiple shots and composite it together to make everything look realistic. We then had to recreate the whole house in 3D in order to create the aftermath of the fire, with the house being completely burned down.

We also went to Washington, and since we obviously couldn’t destroy the Lincoln Memorial, we recreated it all in 3D. That was a lot of back and forth between Bruce, the director and our team. Different parts of Lincoln being chipped away means different things, and Bruce definitely wanted the head to be off. It was really fun because we got to provide a lot of suggestions. On top of that, we also had to create CGI handmaids and all the details that came with it. We had to get the robes right and did cloth simulation to match what was shot on set. There were about a hundred handmaids on set, but we had to make it look like there were thousands.

Were you able to reuse assets from last season for this one?
We were able to use a handmaids asset from last season, but it needed a lot of upgrades for this season. Because there were closer shots of the handmaids, we had to tweak it and made sure little things like the texture, shaders and different cloth simulations were right for this season.

Were you on set? How did that help?
Yes, I was on set, especially for the fire sequences. We spent a lot of time talking about what’s possible and testing different ways to make it happen. We want it to be as perfect as possible, so I had to make sure it was all done properly from the start. We sent another visual effects supervisor, Leo Bovell, down to Washington to supervise out there as well.

Can you talk about a scene or scenes where being on set played a part in doing something either practical or knowing you could do it in CG?
The fire sequence with the smoke going around the corner took a lot of on-set collaboration. We had tried doing it practically, but the smoke was moving too fast for what we wanted, and there was no way we could physically slow it down.

Having the special effects coordinator, John MacGillivray, there to give us real smoke that we could then match to was invaluable. In most cases on this show, very few audible were called. They want to go into the show knowing exactly what to expect so we were prepared and ready.

Can you talk about turnaround time? Typically, series have short ones. How did that affect how you worked?
The average turnaround time was eight weeks. We began discussions in August, before shooting, and had to delivery by January. We worked with Mike to simplify things without diminishing the impact. We just wanted to make sure we had the chance to do it well given the time we had. Mike was very receptive in asking what we needed to do to make it the best it could be in the timeframe that we had. Take the fire sequence, for example. We could have done full-CGI fire but that would have taken six months. So we did our research and testing to find the most efficient way to merge practical effects with CGI and presented the best version in a shorter period of time.

What tools were used?
We used Foundry Nuke for compositing. We used Autodesk Maya to build all the 3D houses, including the burned-down house, and to destroy the Lincoln Memorial. Then we used Side Effects Houdini to do all the simulations, which can range from the smoke and fire to crowd and cloth.

Is there a shot that you are most proud of or that was very challenging?
The shot where we reveal the crowd over June when we’re in Washington was incredibly challenging. The actual Lincoln Memorial, where we shot, is an active public park, so we couldn’t prevent people from visiting the site. The most we could do was hold them off for a few minutes. We ended up having to clean out all of the tourists, which is difficult with moving camera and moving people. We had to reconstruct about 50% of the plate. Then, in order to get the CG people to be standing there, we had to create a replica of the ground they’re standing on in CG. There were some models we got from the US Geological Society, but they didn’t completely line up, so we had to make a lot of decisions on the fly.

The cloth simulation in that scene was perfect. We had to match the dampening and the movement of all the robes. Stephen Wagner, who is our effects lead on it, nailed it. It looked perfect, and it was really exciting to see it all come together. It looked seamless, and when you saw it in the show, nobody believed that the foreground handmaids were all CG. We’re very proud.

What other projects are you working on?
We’re working on a movie called Queen & Slim by Melina Matsoukas with Universal. It’s really great. We’re also doing YouTube Premium’s Impulse and Netflix’s series Madam C.J. Walker.


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

VFX in Series: The Man in the High Castle, Westworld

By Karen Moltenbrey

The look of television changed forever starting in the 1990s as computer graphics technology began to mature to the point where it could be incorporated within television productions. Indeed, the applications initially were minor, but soon audiences were witnessing very complicated work on the small screen. Today, we see a wide range of visual effects being used in television series, from minor wire and sign removal to all-CG characters and complete CG environments — pretty much anything and everything to augment the action and story, or to turn a soundstage or location into a specific locale that could be miles away or even non-existent.

Here, we examine two prime examples where a wide range of visual effects are used to set the stage and propel the action for a pair of series with very unique settings. For instance, The Man in the High Castle uses effects to turn back the clock to the 1960s, but also to create an alternate reality for the period, turning the familiar on its head. In  Westworld, effects create a unique Wild West of the future. In both series, VFX also help turn up the volume on these series’ very creative storylines.

The Man in the High Castle

What would life in the US be like if the Axis powers had defeated the Allied forces during World War II? The Amazon TV series The Man in the High Castle explores that alternate history scenario. Created by Frank Spotnitz and produced by Amazon Studios, Scott Free Productions, Headline Pictures, Electric Shepherd Productions and Big Light Productions, the series is scheduled to start its fourth and final season in mid-November. The story is based on the book by Philip K. Dick.

High Castle begins in the early 1960s in a dystopian America. Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan have divvied up the US as their spoils of war. Germany rules the East, known as the Greater Nazi Reich (with New York City as the regional capital), while Japan controls the West, known as the Japanese Pacific States (whose capital is now San Francisco). The Rocky Mountains serve as the Neutral Zone. The American Resistance works to thwart the occupiers, spurred on after the discovery of materials displaying an alternate reality where the Allies were victorious, making them ponder this scenario.

With this unique storyline, visual effects artists were tasked with turning back the clock on present-day locations to the ’60s and then turning them into German- and Japanese-dominated and inspired environments. Starting with Season 2, the main studio filling this role has been Barnstorm Visual Effects (Los Angeles, Vancouver). Barnstorm operated as one of the vendors for Season 1, but has since ramped up its crew from a dozen to around 70 to take on the additional work. (Barnstorm also works on CBS All Access shows such as The Good Fight and Strange Angel, in addition to Get Shorty, Outlander and the HBO series Room 104 and Silicon Valley.)

According to Barnstorm co-owner and VFX supervisor Lawson Deming, the studio is responsible for all types of effects for the series — ranging from simple cleanup and fixes such as removing modern objects from shots to more extensive period work through the addition of period set pieces and set extensions. In addition, there are some flashback scenes that call for the artists to digitally de-age the actors and lots of military vehicles to add, as well as science-fiction objects. The majority of the overall work entails CG set extensions and world creation, Deming explains, “That involves matte paintings and CG vehicles and buildings.”

The number of visual effects shots per episode also varies greatly, depending on the story line; there are an average of 60 VFX shots an episode, with each season encompassing 10 episodes. Currently the team is working on Season 4. A core group of eight to 10 CG artists and 12 to 18 compositors work on the show at any given time.

For Season 3, released last October, there are a number of scenes that take place in the Reich-occupied New York City. Although it was possible to go to NYC and photograph buildings for reference, the city has changed significantly since the 1960s, “even notwithstanding the fact that this is an alternate history 1960s,” says Deming. “There would have been a lot of work required to remove modern-day elements from shots, particularly at the street level of buildings where modern-day shops are located, even if it was a building from the 1940s, ’50s or ’60s. The whole main floor would have needed replaced.”

So, in many cases, the team found it more prudent to create set extensions for NYC from scratch. The artists created sections of Fifth and Sixth avenues, both for the area where American-born Reichmarshall and Resistance investigator John Smith has his apartment and also for a parade sequence that occurs in the middle of Season 3. They also constructed a digital version of Central Park for that sequence, which involved crafting a lot of modular buildings with mix-and-match pieces and stories to make what looked like a wide variety of different period-accurate buildings, with matte paintings for the backgrounds. Elements such as fire escapes and various types of windows (some with curtains open, some closed) helped randomize the structures. Shaders for brick, stucco, wood and so forth further enabled the artists to get a lot of usage from relatively few assets.

“That was a large undertaking, particularly because in a lot of those scenes, we also had crowd duplication, crowd systems, tiling and so on to create everything that was there,” Deming explains. “So even though it’s just a city and there’s nothing necessarily fantastical about it, it was almost fully created digitally.”

The styles of NYC and San Francisco are very different in the series narrative. The Nazis are rebuilding NYC in their own image, so there is a lot of influence from brutalist architecture, and cranes often dot the skyline to emphasize all the construction taking place. Meanwhile, San Francisco has more of a 1940s look, as the Japanese are less interested in influencing architectural changes as they are in occupation.

“We weren’t trying to create a science-fiction world because we wanted to be sure that what was there would be believable and sell the realistic feel of the story. So, we didn’t want to go too far in what we created. We wanted it to feel familiar enough, though, that you could believe this was really happening,” says Deming.

One of the standout episodes for visual effects is “Jahr Null” (Season 3, Episode 10), which has been nominated for a 2019 Emmy in the Outstanding Special Visual Effects category. It entails the destruction of the Statue of Liberty, which crashes into the water, requiring just about every tool available at Barnstorm. “Prior to [the upcoming] Season 4, our biggest technical challenge was the Statue of Liberty destruction. There were just so many moving parts, literally and figuratively,” says Deming. “So many things had to occur in the narrative – the Nazis had this sense of showmanship, so they filmed their events and there was this constant stream of propaganda and publicity they had created.”

There are ferries with people on them to watch the event, spotlights are on the statue and an air show with music prior to the destruction as planes with trails of colored smoke fly toward the statue. When the planes fire their missiles at the base of the statue, it’s for show, as there are a number of explosives planted in the base of the statue that go off in a ring formation to force the collapse. Deming explains the logistics challenge: “We wanted the statue’s torch arm to break off and sink in the water, but the statue sits too far back. We had to manufacture a way for the statue to not just tip over, but to sort of slide down the rubble of the base so it would be close enough to the edge and the arm would snap off against the side of the island.”

The destruction simulation, including the explosions, fire, water and so forth, was handled primarily in Side Effects Houdini. Because there was so much sim work, a good deal of the effects work for the entire sequence was done in Houdini as well. Lighting and rendering for the scene was done within Autodesk’s Arnold.

Barnstorm also used Blender, an open-source 3D program for modeling and asset creation, for a small portion of the assets in this sequence. In addition, the artists used Houdini Mantra for the water rendering, while textures and shaders were built in Adobe’s Substance Painter; later the team used Foundry’s Nuke to composite the imagery. “There was a lot of deep compositing involved in that scene because we had to have the lighting interact in three dimensions with things like the smoke simulation,” says Deming. “We had a bunch of simulations stacked on top of one another that created a lot of data to work with.”

The artists referenced historical photographs as they designed and built the statue with a period-accurate torch. In the wide aerial shots, the team used some stock footage of the statue with New York City in the background, but had to replace pretty much everything in the shot, shortening the city buildings and replacing Liberty Island, the water surrounding it and the vessels in the water. “So yeah, it ended up being a fully digital model throughout the sequence,” says Deming.

Deming cannot discuss the effects work coming up in Season 4, but he does note that Season 3 contained a lot of digital NYC. This included a sequence wherein John Smith was installed as the Reichmarshall near Central Park, a scene that comprised a digital NYC and digital crowd duplication. On the other side of the country, the team built digital versions of all the ships in San Francisco harbor, including CG builds of period Japanese battleships retrofitted with more modern equipment. Water simulations rounded out the scene.

In another sequence, the Japanese performed nuclear testing in Monument Valley, blowing the caps off the mesas. For that, the artists used reference photos to build the landscape and then created a digital simulation of a nuclear blast.

In addition, there were a multitude of banners on the various buildings. Because of the provocative nature of some of the Nazi flags and Fascist propaganda, solid-color banners were often hung on location, with artists adding the offensive VFX image in post as to not upset locals where the series was filmed. Other times, the VFX artists added all-digital signage to the scenes.

As Deming points out, there is only so much that can be created through production design and costumes. Some of the big things have to be done with visual effects. “There are large world events in the show that happen and large settings that we’re not able to re-create any other way. So, the visual effects are integral to the process of creating the aesthetic world of the show,” he adds. “We’re creating things that while they are visually impressive, also feel authentic, like a world that could really exist. That’s where the power and the horror of the world here comes from.”

High Castle is up for a total of three Emmy awards later this month. It was nominated for three Emmys in 2017 for Season 2 and four in 2016 for Season 1, taking home two Emmys that year: one for Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series and another for Outstanding Title Design.

Westworld

What happens when high tech meets the Wild West, and wealthy patrons can indulge their fantasies with no limits? That is the premise of the Emmy-winning HBO series Westworld from creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, who executive produce along with J.J. Abrams, Athena Wickham, Richard J. Lewis, Ben Stephenson and Denise Thé.

Westworld is set in the fictitious western theme park called Westworld, one of multiple parks where advanced technology enables the use of lifelike android hosts to cater to the whims of guests who are able to pay for such services — all without repercussions, as the hosts are programmed not to retaliate or harm the guests. After each role-play cycle, the host’s memory is erased, and then the cycle begins anew until eventually the host is either decommissioned or used in a different narrative. Staffers are situated out of sight while overseeing park operations and performing repairs on the hosts as necessary. As you can imagine, guests often play out the darkest of desires. So, what happens if some of the hosts retain their memories and begin to develop emotions? What if some escape from the park? What occurs in the other themed parks?

The series debuted in October 2016, with Season 2 running from April through June of 2018. The production for Season 3 began this past spring and it is planned for release in 2020.

The first two seasons were shot in various locations in California, as well as in Castle Valley near Moab, Utah. Multiple vendors provide the visual effects, including the team at CoSA VFX (North Hollywood, Vancouver and Atlanta), which has been with the show since the pilot, working closely with Westworld VFX supervisor Jay Worth. CoSA worked with Worth in the past on other series, including Fringe, Undercovers and Person of Interest.

The number of VFX shots per episode varies, depending on the storyline, and that means the number of shots CoSA is responsible for varies widely as well. For instance, the facility did approximately 360 shots for Season 1 and more than 200 for Season 2. The studio is unable to discuss its work at this time on the upcoming Season 3.

The type of effects work CoSA has done on Westworld varies as well, ranging from concept art through the concept department and extension work through the studio’s environments department. “Our CG team is quite large, so we handle every task from modeling and texturing to rigging, animation and effects,” says Laura Barbera, head of 3D at CoSA. “We’ve created some seamless digital doubles for the show that even I forget are CG! We’ve done crowd duplication, for which we did a fun shoot where we dressed up in period costumes. Our 2D department is also sizable, and they do everything from roto, to comp and creative 2D solutions, to difficult greenscreen elements. We even have a graphics department that did some wonderful shots for Season 2, including holograms and custom interfaces.”

On the 3D side, the studio’s pipeline js mainly comprised of Autodesk’s Maya and Side Effects Houdini, along with Adobe’s Substance, Foundry’s Mari and Pixologic’s ZBrush. Maxon’s Cinema 4D and Interactive Data Visualization’s SpeedTree vegetation modeler are also used. On the 2D side, the artists employ Foundry’s Nuke and the Adobe suite, including After Effects and Photoshop; rendering is done in Chaos Group’s V-Ray and Redshift’s renderer.

Of course, there have been some recurring effects each season, such as the host “twitches and glitches.” And while some of the same locations have been revisited, the CoSA artists have had to modify the environments to fit with the changing timeline of the story.

“Every season sees us getting more and more into the characters and their stories, so it’s been important for us to develop along with it. We’ve had to make our worlds more immersive so that we are feeling out the new and changing surroundings just like the characters are,” Barbera explains. “So the set work gets more complex and the realism gets even more heightened, ensuring that our VFX become even more seamless.”

At center stage have been the park locations, which are rooted in existing terrain, as there is a good deal of location shooting for the series. The challenge for CoSA then becomes how to enhance it and make nature seem even more full and impressive, while still subtly hinting toward the changes in the story, says Barbera. For instance, the studio did a significant amount of work to the Skirball Cultural Center locale in LA for the outdoor environment of Delos, which owns and operates the parks. “It’s now sitting atop a tall mesa instead of overlooking the 405!” she notes. The team also added elements to the abandoned Hawthorne Plaza mall to depict the sublevels of the Delos complex. They’re constantly creating and extending the environments in locations inside and out of the park, including the town of Pariah, a particularly lawless area.

“We’ve created beautiful additions to the outdoor sets. I feel sometimes like we’re looking at a John Ford film, where you don’t realize how important the world around you is to the feel of the story,” Barbera says.

CoSA has done significant interior work too, creating spaces that did not exist on set “but that you’d never know weren’t there unless you’d see the before and afters,” Barbera says. “It’s really very visually impressive — from futuristic set extensions, cars and [Westworld park co-creator] Arnold’s house in Season 2, it’s amazing how much we’ve done to extend the environments to make the world seem even bigger than it is on location.”

One of the larger challenges in the first seasons came in Season 2: creating the Delos complex and the final episodes where the studio had to build a world inside of a world – the Sublime –as well as the gateway to get there. “Creating the Sublime was a challenge because we had to reuse and yet completely change existing footage to design a new environment,” explains Barbera. “We had to find out what kind of trees and foliage would live in that environment, and then figure out how to populate it with hosts that were never in the original footage. This was another sequence where we had to get particularly creative about how to put all the elements together to make it believable.”

In the final episode of the second season, the group created environment work on the hills, pinnacles and quarry where the door to the Sublime appears. They also did an extensive rebuild of the Sublime environment, where the hosts emerge after crossing over. “In the first season, we did a great deal of work on the plateau side of Delos, as well as adding mesas into the background of other shots — where [hosts] Dolores and Teddy are — to make the multiple environments feel connected,” adds Barbera.

Aside from the environments, CoSA also did some subtle work on the robots, especially in Season 2, to make them appear as if they were becoming unhinged, hinting at a malfunction. The comp department also added eye twitches, subtle facial tics and even rapid blinks to provide a sense of uneasiness.

While Westworld’s blending of the Old West’s past and the robotic future initially may seem at thematic odds, the balance of that duality is cleverly accomplished in the filming of the series and the way it is performed, Barbera points out. “Jay Worth has a great vision for the integrated feel of the show. He established the looks for everything,” she adds.

The balance of the visual effects is equally important because it enhances the viewer experience. “There are things happening that can be so subtle but have so much impact. Much of our work on the second season was making sure that the world stayed grounded, so that the strangeness that happened with the characters and story line read as realistic,” Barbera explains. “Our job as visual effects artists is to help our professional storytelling partners tell their tales by adding details and elements that are too difficult or fantastic to accomplish live on set in the midst of production. If we’re doing our job right, you shouldn’t feel suddenly taken out of the moment because of a splashy effect. The visuals are there to supplement the story.”


Karen Moltenbrey is a veteran writer/editor covering VFX and post production.

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Boris FX beefs up film VFX arsenal, buys SilhouetteFX, Digital Film Tools

Boris FX, a provider of integrated VFX and workflow solutions for video and film, has bought SilhouetteFX (SFX) and Digital Film Tools (DFT). The two companies have a long history of developing tools used on Hollywood blockbusters and experience collaborating with top VFX studios, including Weta Digital, Framestore, Technicolor and Deluxe.

This is the third acquisition by Boris FX in recent years — Imagineer Systems (2014) and GenArts (2016) — and builds upon the company’s editing, visual effects, and motion graphics solutions used by post pros working in film and television. Silhouette and Digital Film Tools join Boris FX’s tools Sapphire, Continuum and Mocha Pro.

Silhouette’s groundbreaking non-destructive paint and advanced rotoscoping technology was recognized earlier this year by the Academy of Motion Pictures (Technical Achievement Award). It first gained prominence after Weta Digital used the rotoscoping tools on King Kong (2005). Now the full-fledged GPU-accelerated node-based compositing app features over 100 VFX nodes and integrated Boris FX Mocha planar tracking. Over the last 15 years, feature film artists have used Silhouette on films including Avatar (2009), The Hobbit (2012), Wonder Woman (2017), Avengers: End Game (2019) and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019).

Avengers: End Game courtesy of Marvel

Digital Film Tools (DFT) emerged as an off-shoot of a LA-based motion picture visual effects facility whose work included hundreds of feature films, commercials and television shows.

The Digital Film Tools portfolio includes standalone applications as well as professional plug-in collections for filmmakers, editors, colorists and photographers. The products offer hundreds of realistic filters for optical camera simulation, specialized lenses, film stocks and grain, lens flares, optical lab processes, color correction, keying and compositing, as well as natural light and photographic effects. DFT plug-ins support Adobe’s Photoshop, Lightroom, After Effects and Premiere Pro; Apple’s Final Cut Pro X and Motion; Avid’s Media Composer; and OFX hosts, including Foundry Nuke and Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve.

“This acquisition is a natural next step to our continued growth strategy and singular focus on delivering the most powerful VFX tools and plug-ins to the content creation market,”
“Silhouette fits perfectly into our product line with superior paint and advanced roto tools that highly complement Mocha’s core strength in planar tracking and object removal,” says Boris Yamnitsky, CEO/founder of Boris FX. “Rotoscoping, paint, digital makeup and stereo conversion are some of the most time-consuming, labor-intensive aspects of feature film post. Sharing technology and tools across all our products will make Silhouette even stronger as the leader in these tasks. Furthermore, we are very excited to be working with such an accomplished team [at DFT] and look forward to collaborating on new product offerings for photography, film and video.”

Silhouette founders, Marco Paolini, Paul Miller and Peter Moyer, will continue in their current leadership roles and partner with the Mocha product development team to collaborate on delivering next-generation tools. “By joining forces with Boris FX, we are not only dramatically expanding our team’s capabilities, but we are also joining a group of like-minded film industry pros to provide the best solutions and support to our customers,” says Marco Paolini, Product Designer. “The Mocha planar tracking option we currently license is extremely popular with Silhouette paint and roto artists, and more recently through OFX, we’ve added support for Sapphire plug-ins. Working together under the Boris FX umbrella is our next logical step and we are excited to add new features and continue advancing Silhouette for our user base.”

Both Silhouette and Digital Film Tool plug-ins will continue to be developed and sold under the Boris FX brand. Silhouette will adopt the Boris FX commitment to agile development with annual releases, annual support and subscription options.

Main Image: Silhouette


DP Chat: Peaky Blinder‘s Si Bell ramps up the realism for Season 5

By Randi Altman

UK-based cinematographer Si Bell is known for his work on the critically acclaimed feature films Electricity (2015), In Darkness (2019) and Tiger Raid (2016), as well as high-profile TV shows such as Fortitude, Hard Sun, Britannia and Ripper Street. He is currently working on the new Steven Knight drama special, A Christmas Carol.

Si Bell

He also shot the new season of Peaky Blinders, which begins airing on BBC One on August 25 and then makes its way to Netflix on October 4. Peaky Blinders takes place in Birmingham, England not long after World War I, and follows the Shelby family and its mafia-like business. The show is often dark, brutally violent and completely compelling. It stars Cillian Murphy as Thomas Shelby.

We recently reached out to Bell to ask him about his work on this current season of the edgy crime drama, followed by a look at his career in cinematography.

Tell us about Peaky Blinders Season 5. How early did you get involved in planning for the season? What direction did the showrunners give you about the look they wanted this season?
I got involved pretty early on and ended up having over 10 weeks prep, which is a long time for a TV show. I worked closely with Anthony Byrne, our director, whom I know very well. As the scripts came in, we began to discuss and plan how we were going to tackle the story.

I met with the showrunners early on as well, and they really loved the work Anthony and I had done in the past together on the movie In Darkness and on Ripper Street. Anthony is a very visual director and they trusted us both, so that was really amazing. They wanted us to do Peaky but also to bring our own style and way of working to the table. We were massive fans of the show and had big respect for what the previous directors and cinematographers had done. We knew we had big shoes to fill!

How would you describe the look?
I would describe the Peaky Blinders look as very stylized and larger than life. Lighting wise, it’s known for beams of light, smoke and atmosphere and an almost theatrical look with over cranked camera moves and speed ramps. I wanted to push some realism into the show and not make things quite as theatrical this season yet still keep that Peaky vibe. Tommy (Cillian Murphy) is battling with himself and his own demons more than anyone else in our story.

I wanted to try and show this with the lighting and the camera style. We also tried to use more developing shots in certain scenes to put the audience right in the center of the action and create this sense of visceral realism. We tried to motivate every decision based on how to tell the story in the best and most powerful way to bring out the emotional aspects and really connect with audience.

How did you work with the directors and colorist to achieve the intended look?
I used my DIT James Shovlar to create a look on set for the offline edit and we used that as a starting point for the grade. Then Anthony and I worked with grader Paul Staples at Deluxe in London, whom we had worked with on Ripper Street, and from the reference grade Paul created the finished look. Paul really understood where we wanted to take it, and I’m really pleased with how it turned out. We didn’t want it to feel too pushed but we still wanted it to look like Peaky Blinders.

Where was it shot, and how long was the shoot?
We shot around the northwest of England. We were based mainly in Manchester where we built a number of sets, including the Garrison, Houses of Parliament and Shelby HQ. We also shot in Birmingham, Liverpool, Rochdale and Bradford. We shot 16 five-day weeks in total.

How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses for this project?
We had to shoot 4K, so the standard ARRI Alexa was off the table. A friend of mine, Sam McCurdy, BSC, had mentioned he had been shooting on the new Red Monstro and said he was really blown away by the images. I tested it and thought it was perfect for us. We coupled that with Cooke Anamorphic lenses and delivered in a 2:1 ratio.

Can you describe the lighting?
The lighting is a big part of Peaky Blinders, and it had to be right. My gaffer Oliver Whickman and I used our prep time to draw up detailed lighting plans, which included all of our machine and rigging requirements. We had 91 different lighting diagrams, and because we were scouting and planning the whole six episodes, it was very important that everything had to be written down in a clear, accurate way that could be passed on to our rigging crews.

We were scouting in September 2018, but some of the locations we weren’t shooting until January 2019 and we weren’t going to come back to them because we were so busy shooting. Oliver used the Shot Designer app to make the plans and we made printed books for the rigging gaffer and our best boy Alan Millar. It was certainly the most technically difficult job I have ever done in terms of planning, but everything went very smoothly.

Are there any scenes that you are particularly proud of or found most challenging?
There were many challenging scenes and sets. I’m really pleased how the opening sequence in Chinatown turned out. Also, there’s a big sequence set around a ballet, and I loved how that came together. I thought the design was great, with all the practicals that our designer Nicole Northridge installed in the set. There’s so much in this series, it’s hard to mention one thing.

I’m very proud of all our team. Everyone worked so hard and put so much into it, and I really think it shows. My camera operator Andrew Fletcher, focus puller Tom Finch and key grip Paul Kemp provided exceptional talent to the project. Not only are they great friends, they are the best of the best at what they do and I’m very proud of everything they did on Peaky.

Now let’s dig into some general DP questions. How did you become interested in cinematography?
I used to make skate videos, and then I studied photography in college and started to get interested in the idea of making films. I studied film production at university, and then started to work as a camera trainee once I left. At first I thought I wanted to be a director and made some short films, but after training under some great DPs — Sam McCurdy, BSC, and Lol Crawley, BSC — I realized that’s what I wanted to do, so I started shooting as much as I could and went from there.

What inspires you artistically? And how do you simultaneously stay on top of advancing technology?
I am inspired by watching movies or TV with great stories. I’m also inspired by working with talented people, great directors, great producers and people with a great passion for what they do. Peaky Blinders was massively inspiring as we got to work with some of the greatest actors of our age who are at the top of their game. Working at that level, you need to up your game and that also was massively inspiring.

I always stay on top of new technology by going to trade shows and reading trade magazines.

What new technology has changed the way you work?
I think the camera getting smaller has been the biggest change, as we can use drones, Trinity rigs and other gimbals to move the camera in ways we could never even have dreamed of five years ago.

What are some of your best practices you try to follow on each job?
I always try to bring all my own crew if I can. We have a tight team and it’s so much easier if I can bring all of my guys onto a job as we all have a shorthand with each other. Additionally, I always do detailed lighting diagrams with my gaffer and put in lots of prep and time into the planning of the lighting so we can move quickly and adapt on the day. I also try to build a good relationship with the director as much as I can before shooting.

Explain your ideal collaboration with the director or showrunner when starting a new project.
For me it’s ideal when you work with someone who wants to hear your ideas and bounces off you creatively. It should be a collaboration, and you should be able to talk openly about ideas and feel like you’re valued. That connection is very important — sometimes you click, and sometimes you don’t — it’s about chemistry.

What’s your go-to gear? Things you can’t live without?
Things change depending on the show, but I love a Technocrane and a good remote head. If the show has the budget, they are such brilliant tools to move a camera and find the shot quickly.

On Peaky Blinders we used the ARRI Trinity camera stabilizer quite a lot, which is especially great if you have operator Andrew Fletcher, who is a master!


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


The sounds of HBO’s Divorce: Keeping it real

HBO’s Divorce, which stars Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church, focuses on a long-married couple who just can’t do it anymore. It follows them from divorce through their efforts to move on with their lives, and what that looks like. The show deftly tackles a very difficult subject with a heavy dose of humor mixed in with the pain and angst. The story takes place in various Manhattan locations and a nearby suburb. And as you can imagine the sounds of the neighborhoods vary.

                           
Eric Hirsch                                                              David Briggs

Sound post production for the third season of HBO’s comedy Divorce was completed at Goldcrest Post in New York City. Supervising sound editor David Briggs and re-recording mixer Eric Hirsch worked together to capture the ambiances of upscale Manhattan neighborhoods that serve as the backdrop for the story of the tempestuous breakup between Frances and Robert.

As is often the case with comedy series, the imperative for Divorce’s sound team was to support the narrative by ensuring that the dialogue is crisp and clear, and jokes are properly timed. However, Briggs and Hirsch go far beyond that in developing richly textured soundscapes to achieve a sense of realism often lacking in shows of the genre.

“We use sound to suggest life is happening outside the immediate environment, especially for scenes that are shot on sets,” explains Hirsch. “We work to achieve the right balance, so that the scene doesn’t feel empty but without letting the sound become so prominent that it’s a distraction. It’s meant to work subliminally so that viewers feel that things are happening in suburban New York, while not actually thinking about it.”

Season three of the show introduces several new locations and sound plays a crucial role in capturing their ambience. Parker’s Frances, for example, has moved to Inwood, a hip enclave on the northern tip of Manhattan, and background sound effects help to distinguish it from the woodsy village of Hastings-on-Hudson, where Haden Church’s Robert continues to live. “The challenge was to create separation between those two worlds, so that viewers immediately understand where we are,” explains series producer Mick Aniceto. “Eric and David hit it. They came up with sounds that made sense for each part of the city, from the types of cars you hear on the streets to the conversations and languages that play in the background.”

Meanwhile, Frances’ friend, Diane, (Molly Shannon) has taken up residence in a Manhattan high-rise and it, too, required a specific sonic treatment. “The sounds that filter into a high-rise apartment are much different from those in a street-level structure,” Aniceto notes. “The hum of traffic is more distant, while you hear things like the whirl of helicopters. We had a lot of fun exploring the different sonic environments. To capture the flavor of Hudson-on-Hastings, our executive producer and showrunner came up the idea of adding distant construction sounds to some scenes.”

A few scenes from the new season are set inside a prison. Aniceto says the sound team was able to help breathe life into that environment through the judicious application of very specific sound design. “David Briggs had just come off of Escape at Dannemora, so he was very familiar with the sounds of a prison,” he recalls. “He knew the kind of sounds that you hear in communal areas, not only physical sounds like buzzers and bells, but distant chats among guards and visitors. He helped us come up with amusing bits of background dialogue for the loop group.”

Most of the dialogue came directly from the production tracks, but the sound team hosted several ADR sessions at Goldcrest for crowd scenes. Hirsch points to an episode from the new season that involves a girls basketball team. ADR mixer Krissopher Chevannes recorded groups of voice actors (provided by Dann Fink and Bruce Winant of Loopers Unlimited) to create background dialogue for a scene on a team bus and another that happens during a game.

“During the scene on the bus, the girls are talking normally, but then the action shifts to slo-mo. At that point the sound design goes away and the music drives it,” Hirsch recalls. “When it snaps back to reality, we bring the loop-group crowd back in.”

The emotional depth of Divorce marks it as different from most television comedies, it also creates more interesting opportunities for sound. “The sound portion of the show helps take it over the line and make it real for the audience,” says Aniceto. “Sound is a big priority for Divorce. I get excited by the process and the opportunities it affords to bring scenes to life. So, I surround myself by smart and talented people like Eric and David, who understand how to do that and give the show the perfect feel.”

All three seasons of Divorce are available on HBO Go and HBO Now.


ADR, loop groups, ad-libs: Veep‘s Emmy-nominated audio team

By Jennifer Walden

HBO wrapped up its seventh and final season of Veep back in May, so sadly, we had to say goodbye to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ morally flexible and potty-mouthed Selina Meyer. And while Selina’s political career was a bit rocky at times, the series was rock-solid — as evidenced by its 17 Emmy wins and 68 nominations over show’s seven-year run.

For re-recording mixers William Freesh and John W. Cook II, this is their third Emmy nomination for Sound Mixing on Veep. This year, they entered the series finale — Season 7, Episode 7 “Veep” — for award consideration.

L-R: William Freesh, Sue Cahill, John W. Cook, II

Veep post sound editing and mixing was handled at NBCUniversal Studio Post in Los Angeles. In the midst of Emmy fever, we caught up with re-recording mixer Cook (who won a past Emmy for the mix on Scrubs) and Veep supervising sound editor Sue Cahill (winner of two past Emmys for her work on Black Sails).

Here, Cook and Cahill talk about how Veep’s sound has grown over the years, how they made the rapid-fire jokes crystal clear, and the challenges they faced in crafting the series’ final episode — like building the responsive convention crowds, mixing the transitions to and from the TV broadcasts, and cutting that epic three-way argument between Selina, Uncle Jeff and Jonah.

You’ve been with Veep since 2016? How has your approach to the show changed over the years?
John W. Cook II: Yes, we started when the series came to the states (having previously been posted in England with series creator Armando Iannucci).

Sue Cahill: Dave Mandel became the showrunner, starting with Season 5, and that’s when we started.

Cook: When we started mixing the show, production sound mixer Bill MacPherson and I talked a lot about how together we might improve the sound of the show. He made some tweaks, like trying out different body mics and negotiating with our producers to allow for more boom miking. Notwithstanding all the great work Bill did before Season 5, my job got consistently easier over Seasons 5 through 7 because of his well-recorded tracks.

Also, some of our tools have changed in the last three years. We installed the Avid S6 console. This, along with a handful of new plugins, has helped us work a little faster.

Cahill: In the dialogue editing process this season, we started using a tool called Auto-Align Post from Sound Radix. It’s a great tool that allowed us to cut both the boom and the ISO mics for every clip throughout the show and put them in perfect phase. This allowed John the flexibility to mix both together to give it a warmer, richer sound throughout. We lean heavily on the ISO mics, but being able to mix in the boom more helped the overall sound.

Cook: You get a bit more depth. Body mics tend to be more flat, so you have to add a little bit of reverb and a lot of EQing to get it to sound as bright and punchy as the boom mic. When you can mix them together, you get a natural reverb on the sound that gives the dialogue more depth. It makes it feel like it’s in the space more. And it requires a little less EQing on the ISO mic because you’re not relying on it 100%. When the Auto-Align Post technology came out, I was able to use both mics together more often. Before Auto-Align, I would shy away from doing that if it was too much work to make them sound in-phase. The plugin makes it easier to use both, and I find myself using the boom and ISO mics together more often.

The dialogue on the show has always been rapid-fire, and you really want to hear every joke. Any tools or techniques you use to help the dialogue cut through?
Cook: In my chain, I’m using FabFilter Pro-Q 2 a lot, EQing pretty much every single line in the show. FabFilter’s built-in spectrum analyzer helps get at that target EQ that I’m going for, for every single line in the show.

In terms of compression, I’m doing a lot of gain staging. I have five different points in the chain where I use compression. I’m never trying to slam it too much, just trying to tap it at different stages. It’s a music technique that helps the dialogue to never sound squashed. Gain staging allows me to get a little more punch and a little more volume after each stage of compression.

Cahill: On the editing side, it starts with digging through the production mic tracks to find the cleanest sound. The dialogue assembly on this show is huge. It’s 13 tracks wide for each clip, and there are literally thousands of clips. The show is very cutty, and there are tons of overlaps. Weeding through all the material to find the best lav mics, in addition to the boom, really takes time. It’s not necessarily the character’s lav mic that’s the best for a line. They might be speaking more clearly into the mic of the person that is right across from them. So, listening to every mic choice and finding the best lav mics requires a couple days of work before we even start editing.

Also, we do a lot of iZotope RX work in editing before the dialogue reaches John’s hands. That helps to improve intelligibility and clear up the tracks before John works his magic on it.

Is it hard to find alternate production takes due to the amount of ad-libbing on the show? Do you find you do a lot of ADR?
Cahill: Exactly, it’s really hard to find production alts in the show because there is so much improv. So, yeah, it takes extra time to find the cleanest version of the desired lines. There is a significant amount of ADR in the show. In this episode in particular, we had 144 lines of principal ADR. And, we had 250 cues of group. It’s pretty massive.

There must’ve been so much loop group in the “Veep” episode. Every time they’re in the convention center, it’s packed with people!
Cook: There was the larger convention floor to consider, and the people that were 10 to 15 feet away from whatever character was talking on camera. We tried to balance that big space with the immediate space around the characters.

This particular Veep episode has a chaotic vibe. The main location is the nomination convention. There are huge crowds, TV interviews (both in the convention hall and also playing on Selina’s TV in her skybox suite and hotel room) and a big celebration at the end. Editorially, how did you approach the design of this hectic atmosphere?
Cahill: Our sound effects editor Jonathan Golodner had a lot of recordings from prior national conventions. So those recordings are used throughout this episode. It really gives the convention center that authenticity. It gave us the feeling of those enormous crowds. It really helped to sell the space, both when they are on the convention floor and from the skyboxes.

The loop group we talked about was a huge part of the sound design. There were layers and layers of crafted walla. We listened to a lot of footage from past conventions and found that there is always a speaker on the floor giving a speech to ignite the crowd, so we tried to recreate that in loop group. We did some speeches that we played in the background so we would have these swells of the crowd and crowd reactions that gave the crowd some movement so that it didn’t sound static. I felt like it gave it a lot more life.

We recreated chanting in loop group. There was a chant for Tom James (Hugh Laurie), which was part of production. They were saying, “Run Tom Run!” We augmented that with group. We changed the start of that chant from where it was in production. We used the loop group to start that chant sooner.

Cook: The Tom James chant was one instance where we did have production crowd. But most of the time, Sue was building the crowds with the loop group.

Cahill: I used casting director Barbara Harris for loop group, and throughout the season we had so many different crowds and rallies — both interior and exterior — that we built with loop group because there wasn’t enough from production. We had to hit on all the points that they are talking about in the story. Jonah (Timothy Simons) had some fun rallies this season.

Cook: Those moments of Jonah’s were always more of a “call-and-response”-type treatment.

The convention location offered plenty of opportunity for creative mixing. For example, the episode starts with Congressman Furlong (Dan Bakkedahl) addressing the crowd from the podium. The shot cuts to a CBSN TV broadcast of him addressing the crowd. Next the shot cuts to Selina’s skybox, where they’re watching him on TV. Then it’s quickly back to Furlong in the convention hall, then back to the TV broadcast, and back to Selina’s room — all in the span of seconds. Can you tell me about your mix on that sequence?
Cook: It was about deciding on the right reverb for the convention center and the right reverbs for all the loop group and the crowds and how wide to be (how much of the surrounds we used) in the convention space. Cutting to the skybox, all of that sound was mixed to mono, for the most part, and EQ’d a little bit. The producers didn’t want to futz it too much. They wanted to keep the energy, so mixing it to mono was the primary way of dealing with it.

Whenever there was a graphic on the lower third, we talked about treating that sound like it was news footage. But we decided we liked the energy of it being full fidelity for all of those moments we’re on the convention floor.

Another interesting thing was the way that Bill Freesh and I worked together. Bill was handling all of the big cut crowds, and I was handling the loop group on my side. We were trying to walk the line between a general crowd din on the convention floor, where you always felt like it was busy and crowded and huge, along with specific reactions from the loop group reacting to something that Furlong would say, or later in the show, reacting to Selina’s acceptance speech. We always wanted to play reactions to the specifics, but on the convention floor it never seems to get quiet. There was a lot of discussion about that.

Even though we cut from the convention center into the skybox, those considerations about crowd were still in play — whether we were on the convention floor or watching the convention through a TV monitor.

You did an amazing job on all those transitions — from the podium to the TV broadcast to the skybox. It felt very real, very natural.
Cook: Thank you! That was important to us, and certainly important to the producers. All the while, we tried to maintain as much energy as we could. Once we got the sound of it right, we made sure that the volume was kept up enough so that you always felt that energy.

It feels like the backgrounds never stop when they’re in the convention hall. In Selina’s skybox, when someone opens the door to the hallway, you hear the crowd as though the sound is traveling down the hallway. Such a great detail.
Cook and Cahill: Thank you!

For the background TV broadcasts feeding Selina info about the race — like Buddy Calhoun (Matt Oberg) talking about the transgender bathrooms — what was your approach to mixing those in this episode? How did you decide when to really push them forward in the mix and when to pull back?
Cook: We thought about panning. For the most part, our main storyline is in the center. When you have a TV running in the background, you can pan it off to the side a bit. It’s amazing how you can keep the volume up a little more without it getting in the way and masking the primary characters’ dialogue.

It’s also about finding the right EQ so that the TV broadcast isn’t sharing the same EQ bandwidth as the characters in the room.

Compression plays a role too, whether that’s via a plugin or me riding the fader. I can manually do what a side-chained compressor can do by just riding the fader and pulling the sound down when necessary or boosting it when there’s a space between dialogue lines from the main characters. The challenge is that there is constant talking on this show.

Going back to what has changed over the last three years, one of the things that has changed is that we have more time per episode to mix the show. We got more and more time from the first mix to the last mix. We have twice as much time to mix the show.

Even with all the backgrounds happening in Veep, you never miss the dialogue lines. Except, there’s a great argument that happens when Selina tells Jonah he’s going to be vice president. His Uncle Jeff (Peter MacNicol) starts yelling at him, and then Selina joins in. And Jonah is yelling back at them. It’s a great cacophony of insults. Can you tell me about that scene?
Cahill: Those 15 seconds of screen time took us several hours of work in editorial. Dave (Mandel) said he couldn’t understand Selina clearly enough, but he didn’t want to loop the whole argument. Of course, all three characters are overlapped — you can hear all of them on each other’s mics — so how do you just loop Selina?

We started with an extensive production alt search that went back and forth through the cutting room a few times. We decided that we did need to ADR Selina. So we ended up using a combination of mostly ADR for Selina’s side with a little bit of production.

For the other two characters, we wanted to save their production lines, so our dialogue editor Jane Boegel (she’s the best!) did an amazing job using iZotope RX’s De-bleed feature to clear Selina’s voice out of their mics, so we could preserve their performances.

We didn’t loop any of Uncle Jeff, and it was all because of Jane’s work cleaning out Selina. We were able to save all of Uncle Jeff. It’s mostly production for Jonah, but we did have to loop a few words for him. So it was ADR for Selina, all of Uncle Jeff and nearly all of Jonah from set. Then, it was up to John to make it match.

Cook: For me, in moments like those, it’s about trying to get equal volumes for all the characters involved. I tried to make Selina’s yelling and Uncle Jeff’s yelling at the exact same level so the listener’s ear can decide what it wants to focus on rather than my mix telling you what to focus on.

Another great mix sequence was Selina’s nomination for president. There’s a promo video of her talking about horses that’s playing back in the convention hall. There are multiple layers of processing happening — the TV filter, the PA distortion and the convention hall reverb. Can you tell me about the processing on that scene?
Cook: Oftentimes, when I do that PA sound, it’s a little bit of futzing, like rolling off the lows and highs, almost like you would do for a small TV. But then you put a big reverb on it, with some pre-delay on it as well, so you hear it bouncing off the walls. Once you find the right reverb, you’re also hearing it reflecting off the walls a little bit. Sometimes I’ll add a little bit of distortion as well, as if it’s coming out of the PA.

When Selina is backstage talking with Gary (Tony Hale), I rolled off a lot more of the highs on the reverb return on the promo video. Then, in the same way I’d approach levels with a TV in the room, I was riding the level on the promo video to fit around the main characters’ dialogue. I tried to push it in between little breaks in the conversation, pulling it down lower when we needed to focus on the main characters.

What was the most challenging scene for you to mix?
Cook: I would say the Tom James chanting was challenging because we wanted to hear the chant from inside the skybox to the balcony of the skybox and then down on the convention floor. There was a lot of conversation about the microphones from Mike McLintock’s (Matt Walsh) interview. The producers decided that since there was a little bit of bleed in the production already, they wanted Mike’s microphone to be going out to the PA speakers in the convention hall. You hear a big reverb on Tom James as well. Then, the level of all the loop group specifics and chanting — from the ramp up of the chanting from zero to full volume — we negotiated with the producers. That was one of the more challenging scenes.

The acceptance speech was challenging too, because of all of the cutaways. There is that moment with Gary getting arrested by the FBI; we had to decide how much of that we wanted to hear.
There was the Billy Joel song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” that played over all the characters’ banter following Selina’s acceptance speech. We had to balance the dialogue with the desire to crank up that track as much as we could.

There were so many great moments this season. How did you decide on the series finale episode, “Veep,” for Emmy consideration for Sound Mixing?
Cook: It was mostly about story. This is the end of a seven-year run (a three-year run for Sue and I), but the fact that every character gets a moment — a wrap-up on their character — makes me nostalgic about this episode in that way.

It also had some great sound challenges that came together nicely, like all the different crowds and the use of loop group. We’ve been using a lot of loop group on the show for the past three years, but this episode had a particularly massive amount of loop group.

The producers were also huge fans of this episode. When I talked to Dave Mandel about which episode we should put up, he recommended this one as well.

Any other thoughts you’d like to add on the sound of Veep?
Cook: I’m going to miss Veep a lot. The people on it, like Dave Mandel, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Morgan Sackett … everyone behind the credenza. They were always working to create an even better show. It was a thrill to be a team member. They always treated us like we were in it together to make something great. It was a pleasure to work with people that recognize and appreciate the time and the heart that we contribute. I’ll miss working with them.

Cahill: I agree with John. On that last playback, no one wanted to leave the stage. Dave brought champagne, and Julia brought chocolates. It was really hard to say goodbye.


Game of Thrones’ Emmy-nominated visual effects

By Iain Blair

Once upon a time, only glamorous movies could afford the time and money it took to create truly imaginative and spectacular visual effects. Meanwhile, television shows either tried to avoid them altogether or had to rely on hand-me-downs. But the digital revolution changed all that with its technological advances, and new tools quickly leveling the playing field. Today, television is giving the movies a run for their money when it comes to sophisticated visual effects, as evidenced by HBO’s blockbuster series, Game of Thrones.

Mohsen Mousavi

This fantasy series was recently Emmy-nominated a record-busting 32 times for its eighth and final season — including one for its visually ambitious VFX in the penultimate episode, “The Bells.”

The epic mass destruction presented Scanline’s VFX supervisor, Mohsen Mousavi, and his team many challenges. But his expertise in high-end visual effects, and his reputation for constant innovation in advanced methodology, made him a perfect fit to oversee Scanline’s VFX for the crucial last three episodes of the final season of Game of Thrones.

Mousavi started his VFX career in the field of artificial intelligence and advanced-physics-based simulations. He spearheaded designing and developing many different proprietary toolsets and pipelines for doing crowd, fluid and rigid body simulation, including FluidIT, BehaveIT and CardIT, a node-based crowd choreography toolset.

Prior to joining Scanline VFX Vancouver, Mousavi rose through the ranks of top visual effects houses, working in jobs that ranged from lead effects technical director to CG supervisor and, ultimately, VFX supervisor. He’s been involved in such high-profile projects as Hugo, The Amazing Spider-Man and Sucker Punch.

In 2012, he began working with Scanline, acting as digital effects supervisor on 300: Rise of an Empire, for which Scanline handled almost 700 water-based sea battle shots. He then served as VFX supervisor on San Andreas, helping develop the company’s proprietary city-generation software. That software and pipeline were further developed and enhanced for scenes of destruction in director Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day: Resurgence. In 2017, he served as the lead VFX supervisor for Scanline on the Warner Bros. shark thriller, The Meg.

I spoke with Mousavi about creating the VFX and their pipeline.

Congratulations on being Emmy-nominated for “The Bells,” which showcased so many impressive VFX. How did all your work on Season 4 prepare you for the big finale?
We were heavily involved in the finale of Season 4, however the scope was far smaller. What we learned was the collaboration and the nature of the show, and what the expectations were in terms of the quality of the work and what HBO wanted.

You were brought onto the project by lead VFX supervisor Joe Bauer, correct?
Right. Joe was the “client VFX supervisor” on the HBO side and was involved since Season 3. Together with my producer, Marcus Goodwin, we also worked closely with HBO’s lead visual effects producer, Steve Kullback, who I’d worked with before on a different show and in a different capacity. We all had daily sessions and conversations, a lot of back and forth, and Joe would review the entire work, give us feedback and manage everything between us and other vendors, like Weta, Image Engine and Pixomondo. This was done both technically and creatively, so no one stepped on each other’s toes if we were sharing a shot and assets. But it was so well-planned that there wasn’t much overlap.

[Editor’s Note: Here is the full list of those nominated for their VFX work on Game of Thrones — Joe Bauer, lead visual effects supervisor; Steve Kullback, lead visual effects producer; Adam Chazen, visual effects associate producer; Sam Conway, special effects supervisor; Mohsen Mousavi, visual effects supervisor; Martin Hill, visual effects supervisor; Ted Rae, visual effects plate supervisor; Patrick Tiberius Gehlen, previz lead; and Thomas Schelesny, visual effects and animation supervisor.]

What were you tasked with doing on Season 8?
We were involved as one of the lead vendors on the last three episodes and covered a variety of sequences. In episode four, “The Last of the Starks,” we worked on the confrontation between Daenerys and Cersei in front of the King’s Landing’s gate, which included a full CG environment of the city gate and the landscape around it, as well as Missandei’s death sequence, which featured a full CG Missandei. We also did the animated Drogon outside the gate while the negotiations took place.

Then for “The Bells” we were responsible for most of the Battle of King’s Landing, which included full digital city, Daenerys’ army camp site outside the walls of King’s Landing, the gathering of soldiers in front of the King’s Landing walls, Danny’s attack on the scorpions, the city gate, streets and the Red Keep, which had some very close-up set extensions, close-up fire and destruction simulations and full CG crowd of various different factions — armies and civilians. We also did the iconic Cleaganebowl fight between The Hound and The Mountain and Jamie Lannister’s fight with Euron at the beach underneath the Red Keep. In Episode 5, we received raw animation caches of the dragon from Image Engine and did the full look-dev, lighting and rendering of the final dragon in our composites.

For the final episode, “The Iron Throne, we were responsible for the entire Deanerys speech sequence, which included a full 360 digital environment of the city aftermath and the Red Keep plaza filled with digital unsullied Dothrakies and CG horses leading into the majestic confrontation between Jon and Drogon, where it revealed itself from underneath a huge pile of snow outside Red Keep. We were also responsible for the iconic throne melt sequence, which included some advance simulation of high viscous fluid and destruction of the area around the throne and finishing the dramatic sequence with Drogon carrying Danny out of the throne room and away from King’s Landing into the unknown.

Where was all this work done?
The majority of the work was done here in Vancouver, which is the biggest Scanline office. Additionally we had teams working in our Munich, Montreal and LA offices. We’re a 100% connected company, all working under the same infrastructure in the same pipeline. So if I work with the team in Munich, it’s like they’re sitting in the next room. That allows us to set up and attack the project with a larger crew and get the benefit of the 24/7 scenario; as we go home, they can continue working, and it makes us far more productive.

How many VFX did you have to create for the final season?
We worked on over 600 shots across the final three episodes which gave us approximately over an hour of screen time of high-end consistent visual effects.

Isn’t that hour length unusual for 600 shots?
Yes, but we had a number of shots that were really long, including some ground coverage shots of Arya in the streets of King’s Landing that were over four or five minutes long. So we had the complexity along with the long duration.

How many people were on your team?
At the height, we had about 350 artists on the project, and we began in March 2018 and didn’t wrap till nearly the end of April 2019 — so it took us over a year of very intense work.

Tell us about the pipeline specific to Game of Thrones.
Scanline has an industry-wide reputation for delivering very complex, full CG environments combined with complex simulation scenarios of all sort of fluid dynamics and destruction based on our simulation framework “Flowline.” We had a high-end digital character and hero creature pipeline that gave the final three episodes a boost up front. What was new were the additions to our procedural city generation pipeline for the recreation of King’s Landing, making sure it can deliver both in wide angle shots as well as some extreme close-up set extensions.

How did you do that?
We used a framework we developed back for Independence Day: Resurgence, which is a module-based procedural city generation leveraging some incredible scans of the historical city of Dubrovnik as a blueprint and foundation of King’s Landing. Instead of doing the modeling conventionally, you model a lot of small modules, kind of like Lego blocks. You create various windows, stones, doors, shingles and so on, and once it’s encoded in the system, you can semi-automatically generate variations of buildings on the fly. That also goes for texturing. We had procedurally generated layers of façade textures, which gave us a lot of flexibility on texturing the entire city, with full control over the level of aging and damage. We could decide to make a block look older easily without going back to square one. That’s how we could create King’s Landing with its hundreds of thousands of unique buildings.

The same technology was applied to the aftermath of the city in Episode 6. We took the intact King’s Landing and ran a number of procedural collapsing simulations on the buildings to get the correct weight based on references from the bombed city of Dresden during WWII, and then we added procedurally created CG snow on the entire city.

It didn’t look like the usual matte paintings were used at all.
You’re right, and there were a lot of shots that normally would be done that way, but to Joe’s credit, he wanted to make sure the environments weren’t cheated in any way. That was a big challenge, to keep everything consistent and accurate. Even if we used traditional painting methods, it was all done on top of an accurate 3D representation with correct lighting and composition.

What other tools did you use?
We use Autodesk Maya for all our front-end departments, including modeling, layout, animation, rigging and creature effects, and we bridge the results to Autodesk 3ds Max, which encapsulates our look-dev/FX and rendering departments, powered by Flowline and Chaos Group’s V-Ray as our primary render engine, followed by Foundry’s Nuke as our main compositing package.

At the heart of our crowd pipeline, we use Massive and our creature department is driven with Ziva muscles which was a collaboration we started with Ziva Dynamics back for the creation of the hero Megalodon in The Meg.

Fair to say that your work on Game of Thrones was truly cutting-edge?
Game of Thrones has pushed the limit above and beyond and has effectively erased the TV/feature line. In terms of environment and effects and the creature work, this is what you’d do for a high-end blockbuster for the big screen. No difference at all.


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: Dopesick Nation cinematographer Greg Taylor

By Randi Altman

Dopesick Nation is a documentary series on Vice Media’s Viceland that follows two recovering heroin addicts, Frankie and Allie, in South Florida as they try to help others while taking a look at corruption and exploitation in the rehab industry. The series was inspired by the feature film American Relapse.

Dopesick Nation

As you might imagine, the shoot was challenging, often taking place at night and in dubious locales, but cinematographers Greg Taylor and Mike Goodman were up for the challenge. Both had worked with series co-creator/executive producer Patrick McGee previously and were happy to collaborate once more.

We reached out to DP Taylor to talk about working with McGee and Goodman and the show’s workflow.

Tell us about Dopesick Nation. How early did you get involved in this series, and how did you work with the director?
Pat McGee tapped myself and Mike Goodman to shoot American Relapse. We were just coming off another show and had a finely tuned team ready to spend long nights on this new project. The movie turned out to have a familiar gritty feel you see in the show but in a feature documentary format.

I imagine it was a natural progression to use us again once the TV show was greenlit by Viceland. Pat would keep on our heels to find the best moments for every story and would push us to go out and produce intimate moments with the subjects on the fly. He and producer Adam Linkenhelt (American Relapse) were with us almost every step of the way, offering advice, watching our backs and looking out for incoming storylines. Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about that whole crew.

(L-R) Mike Goodman, supervising producer Adam Linkenhelt and showrunner Pat McGee (Photo by Greg Taylor)

How did you work with fellow DP Mike Goodman? How did you divvy up the shots?
Mike and I have worked long enough together that we have an efficient shorthand. A gesture or look can set up an entire scene sometimes, and I often can’t tell my shots from his. We both put a lot of effort into creativity in our imagery and pushing the bar as much as we can handle. During rare downtimes, we might brainstorm on a new way to shoot b-roll or decide what “gritty” should look and feel like.

Covering the often late and challenging days took a bit of baton-passing back and forth. Some days, we would split up and shoot single camera as well. It was decided at some point that I would cover more of Frankie’s story, while Mike would cover Allie. When the two met up at the end of the day, we would cover them together. Most of the major scenes we shot together, but there were times when too much was happening to cover it all. We were really in the addicts’ world, so some events were completely unexpected.

How would you describe the look of the doc?
I’d say gritty would be the best single word, but that can be nuanced quite a bit. There was an overall aim to keep some frames dirty during dialogue scenes to achieve a slightly voyeuristic feel but still leave lots of room for intimate, in-your-face, bam-type moments when the story dictated. We always paid attention to our backgrounds, and there was a focus on the contrast between beautiful southeast Florida and the dark underbelly lurking just next to it. The show had to be so real that no one would ever question the legitimacy of what we were showing. No-filter, behind-the-veil type thinking in every shot.

Dopesick Nation

How does your process change when shooting a documentary versus a fictional piece? Or does it not?
Story is king, and I’d say character arcs for the feature American Relapse were different from the TV version. In the film, we gave an overview of the treatment industry told through the eyes of our two main characters, Allie and Frank. It is structured somewhat around their typical day and sit-down interviews.

The TV show did not have formal interviews but did allow us to dig deeper into accounts from individuals with addiction, the world they live in and the hosts themselves. The 10 one-hour episodes and three-plus months spent shooting gave us a little more time to build up a library of transition pieces and specialty b-roll.

Where was it shot?
Almost all of the shooting took place in and around southeast Florida. A few short scenes were picked up in Ohio and LA.

How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses for this project? Can you talk about camera tests?
It’s funny because Mike and I both independently came up with using the Panasonic VariCam LT after the director came to us asking what we wanted to shoot with. We chatted and decided that we needed solutions for potentially tougher nighttime setups than we had been used to. When we gathered for a meeting and started up the gear list, Mike and I both had the LT on the top of our requests.

Dopesick Nation

I think that signaled to the preproduction team we were unanimous on what the best system was to use and production manager Keith Plant made it happen. I had seen the camera in action at NAB and watched some tests a friend had shot on it a few months before. I was easily sold on its rich blacks and dual native ISO. That camera could see into the dark and wasn’t so heavy we would collapse at the end of the day; it worked out very well.

Can you talk about the lighting and how the camera worked while grabbing shots when you could?
Lighting on this show was minimal, but we did use fills and background illumination to enhance some scenes. Working mostly at night — in dubious surroundings — often meant we couldn’t light scenes. Lights bring unwanted attention to the crew and subjects, and we found it changed the feel of the scene in a negative way.

Using the available light at each location quickly became fundamentally important to maintain the unfiltered nature of the show. Every bright spot in the darkness was carefully considered, and if we could pull subjects slightly toward a source, even to get 1/3 a stop more, we would take it.

Any challenging scenes that you are particularly proud of or found most challenging?
There were a lot of scenes that were challenging to shoot technically, but that happens on any project. You don’t always want to see what you are standing next to, but the story needs to be told. There are a lot of people out there really struggling with addiction, and it can be really painful to watch. Being present with everyone and being real with them had to be in your mind constantly. I kept thinking the whole time, “Am I doing them justice? What can I do better? How can I help?”

DPs Mike Goodman and Greg Taylor shoot Ally interviewing one of the subjects (Photo by Tara Sarzen)

Let’s move on to more some more general questions. How did you become interested in cinematography?
I’ve always loved working with celluloid and photography and was brought up with a darkroom in the house. I remember taking a filmmaking summer camp when I was 14 in Oxford, Mississippi, and was basically blown away. I’ve been aiming for a career in cinematography ever since.

What inspires you artistically? And how do you simultaneously stay on top of advancing technology that serves your vision?
Artistically, I love Dali, Picasso and the works of Caravaggio and Rembrandt. The way light plays in a chiaroscuro painting is really something worth studying and it isn’t easy to replicate.

I like to try and pay homage to the films I enjoy and artworks I’ve visited by incorporating some of their ideas into my own work. With film cameras, things changed slower over the years, and it was often the film stock that became the technological advancement of its day. Granular structure turned to crystal structures, higher ISO/ASA were achieved, color reproduction improved. The same is with the new camera systems coming out. Sensors are the new film stock. You pick what is appropriate to the story.

What new technology has changed the way you work?
I rarely go anywhere nowadays without a drone. The advancements in drone technology have changed the aerial world entirely, and I’m happy to see these new angles open up in an increasingly responsible and licensed way.

DP Greg Taylor shooting in SE Florida. (Photo by Evan Parquette)

Gimbals are a game changer in the way the Steadicam came onto the scene, and I don’t expect them to go anywhere. Also motion-control devices and newer, more sensitive sensors are certainly fitting the bill of ever-evolving and improving tech.

What are some of your best practices or rules you try to follow on each job?
Be aware and attentive of your surroundings and safety. Treat others with respect. Maintain a professional attitude under stress. If you are five minutes early, you’re late.

Explain your ideal collaboration with the director when setting the look of a project.
I love discussing what the heart of the script or concept really means and trying to find the deeper connection with how it can be told visually. Referencing other films/art/ TV we both have experience with and finding a common language that makes sense for the vision.

What’s your go-to gear — things you can’t live without?
I have an old Nikkor 55mm f1.2 lens I love, and I often shoot personal projects on prime vintage glass. The edges aren’t quite as sharp as modern lenses so in the case of the 55mm, you get a lovely yet subtle sharpness vignette along with a warm overall feel.

It’s great for interviews because it softens the digital crispness newer sensors exhibit without the noticeable changes you might see with certain filtration. The Hip Shot belt has been one of my best friends over the past while, and it saves you on the long days and low, long dialogue scenes when handholding seated subjects.


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


GLOW’s DP and colorist adapt look of new season for Vegas setting

By Adrian Pennington

Netflix’s Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW) are back in the ring for a third round of the dramatic comedy, but this time the girls are in Las Vegas. The glitz and glamour of Sin City seems tailor-made for the 1980s-set GLOW and provided the main creative challenge for Season 3 cinematographer Chris Teague (Russian Doll, Broad City).

DP Chris Teague

“Early on, I met with Christian Sprenger, who shot the first season and designed the initial look,” says Teague, who was recently nominated for an Emmy for his work on Russian Doll. “We still want GLOW to feel like GLOW, but the story and character arc of Season 3 and the new setting led us to build on the look and evolve elements like lighting and dynamic range.”

The GLOW team is headlining the Fan-Tan Hotel & Casino, one of two main sets along with a hotel built for the series and featuring the distinctive Vegas skyline as a backdrop.

“We discussed compositing actors against greenscreen, but that would have turned every shot into a VFX shot and would have been too costly, not to mention time-intensive on a TV schedule like ours,” he says. “Plus, working with a backdrop just felt aesthetically right.”

In that vein, production designer Todd Fjelsted built a skyline using miniatures, a creative decision in keeping with the handcrafted look of the show. That decision, though, required extensive testing of lenses, lighting and look prior to shooting. This testing was done in partnership with post house Light Iron.

“There was no overall shift in the look of the show, but together with Light Iron, we felt the baseline LUT needed to be built on, particularly in terms of how we lit the sets,” explains Teague.

“Chris was clear early on that he wanted to build upon the look of the first two seasons,” says Light Iron colorist Ian Vertovec. “We adjusted the LUT to hold a little more color in the highlights than in past seasons. Originally, the LUT was based on a film emulation and adjusted for HDR. In Season 1, we created a period film look and transformed it for HDR to get a hybrid film emulation LUT. For Season 3, for HDR and standard viewing, we made tweaks to the LUT so that some of the colors would pop more.”

The show was also finished in Dolby Vision HDR. “There was some initial concern about working with backdrops and stages in HDR,” Teague says. “We are used to the way film treats color over its exposure range — it tends to desaturate as it gets more overexposed — whereas HDR holds a lot more color information in overexposure. However, Ian showed how it can be a creative tool.”

Colorist Ian Vertovec

“The goal was to get the 1980s buildings in the background and out the hotel windows to look real — emulating marquees with flashing lights,” adds Vertovec. “We also needed it to be a believable Nevada sky and skyline. Skies and clouds look different in HDR. So, when dialing this in, we discussed how they wanted it to look. Did it feel real? Is the sky in this scene too blue? Information from testing informed production, so everything was geared toward these looks.”

“Ian has been on the first two seasons, so he knows the look inside and out and has a great eye,” Teague continues. “It’s nice to come into a room and have his point of view. Sometimes when you are staring at images all day, it’s easy to lose your objectivity, so I relied on Ian’s insight.” Vertovec grades the show on FilmLight’s Baselight.

As with Season 2, GLOW Season 3 was a Red Helium shoot using Red’s IPP2 color pipeline in conjunction with Vertovec’s custom LUTs all the way to post. Teague shot full 8K resolution to accommodate his choice of Cooke anamorphic lenses, desqueezed and finished in a 2:1 ratio.

“For dailies I used an iPad with Moxion, which is perhaps the best dailies viewing platform I’ve ever worked with. I feel like the color is more accurate than other platforms, which is extremely useful for checking out contrast and shadow level. Too many times with dailies you get blacks washed out and highlights blown and you can’t judge anything critical.”

Teague sat in on the grade of the first three of the 10 episodes and then used the app to pull stills and make notes remotely. “With Ian I felt like we were both on the same page. We also had a great DIT [Peter Brunet] who was doing on-set grading for reference and was able to dial in things at a much higher level than I’ve been able to do in the past.”

The most challenging but also rewarding work was shooting the wrestling performances. “We wanted to do something that felt a little bigger, more polished, more theatrical,” Teague says. “The performance space had tiered seating, which gave us challenges and options in terms of moving the cameras. For example, we could use telescoping crane work to reach across the room and draw characters in as they enter the wrestling ring.”

He commends gaffer Eric Sagot for inspiring lighting cues and building them into the performance. “The wrestling scenes were the hardest to shoot but they’re exciting to watch — dynamic, cinematic and deliberately a little hokey in true ‘80s Vegas style.”


Adrian Pennington is a UK-based journalist, editor and commentator in the film and TV production space. He has co-written a book on stereoscopic 3D and edited several publications.

Dick Wolf’s television empire: his production and post brain trust

By Iain Blair

The TV landscape is full of scripted police procedurals and true crime dramas these days, but the indisputable and legendary king of that crowded landscape is Emmy-winning creator/producer Dick Wolf, whose name has become synonymous with high-quality drama.

Arthur Forney

Since it burst onto the scene back in 1990, his Law & Order show has spawned six dramas and four international spinoffs, while his “Chicago” franchise gave birth to another four series — the hugely popular Chicago Med, Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. His Chicago Justice was cancelled after one season.

Then there’s his “FBI” shows, as well as the more documentary-style Cold Justice. If you’ve seen Cold Justice — and you should — you know that this is the real deal, focusing on real crimes. It’s all the more fascinating and addictive because of it.

Produced by Wolf and Magical Elves, the real-life crime series follows veteran prosecutor Kelly Siegler, who gets help from seasoned detectives as they dig into small-town murder cases that have lingered for years without answers or justice for the victims. Together with local law enforcement from across the country, the Cold Justice team has successfully helped bring about 45 arrests and 20 convictions. No case is too cold for Siegler, as the new season delves into new unsolved homicides while also bringing updates to previous cases. No wonder Wolf calls it “doing God’s work.” Cold Justice airs on true crime network Oxygen.

I recently spoke with Emmy-winning Arthur Forney, executive producer of all Wolf Entertainment’s scripted series (he’s also directed many episodes), about posting those shows. I also spoke with Cold Justice showrunner Liz Cook and EP/head of post Scott Patch.

Chicago Fire

Dick Wolf has said that, as head of post, you are “one of the irreplaceable pieces of the Wolf Films hierarchy.” How many shows do you oversee?
Arthur Forney: I oversee all of Wolf Entertainment’s scripted series, including Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., Chicago Med, FBI and FBI: Most Wanted.

Where is all the post done?
Forney: We do it all at NBCUniversal StudioPost in LA.

How involved is Dick Wolf?
Forney: Very involved, and we talk all the time.

How does the post pipeline work?
Forney: All film is shot on location and then sent back to the editing room and streamed into the lab. From there we do all our color corrections, which takes us into downloading it into Avid Media Composer.

What are the biggest challenges of the post process on the shows?
Forney: Delivering high-quality programming with a shortened post schedule.

Chicago Med

What are the editing challenges involved?
Forney: Trying to find the right way of telling the story, finding the right performances, shaping the show and creating intensity that results in high-quality television.

What about VFX? Who does them?
Forney: All of our visual effects are done by Spy Post in Santa Monica. All of the action is enhanced and done by them.

Where do you do the color grading?
Forney: Coloring/grading is all done at NBCUniversal StudioPost.

Now let’s talk to Cook and Patch about Cold Justice:

Liz and Scott, I recently saw the finale to Season 5 of Cold Justice. That was a long season.
Liz Cook: Yes, we did 26 episodes, so it was a lot of very long days and hard work.

It seems that there’s more focus than ever on drug-related cases now.
Cook: I don’t think that was the intention going in, but as we’ve gone on, you can’t help but recognize the huge drug problem in America now. Meth and opioids pop up in a lot of cases, and it’s obviously a crisis, and even if they aren’t the driving force in many cases, they’re definitely part of many.

L-R: Kelly Siegler, Dick Wolf, Scott Patch and Liz Cook. Photo by Evans Vestal Ward

How do you go about finding cases for the show?
Cook: We have a case-finding team, and they get the cases various ways, including cold-calling. We have a team dedicated to that, calling every day, and we get most of them that way. A lot come through agencies and sheriff’s departments that have worked with us before and want to help us again. And we get some from family members and some from hits on the Facebook page we have.

I assume you need to work very closely with local law agencies as you need access to their files?
Cook: Exactly. That’s the first part of the whole puzzle. They have to invite us in. The second part is getting the family involved. I don’t think we’d ever take on a case that the family didn’t want us to do.

What’s involved for you, and do you like being a showrunner?
Cook: It’s a tough job and pretty demanding, but I love it. We go through a lot of steps and stuff to get a case approved, and to get the police and family on board, and then we get the case read by one of our legal readers to evaluate it and see if there’s a possibility that we can solve it. At that point we pitch it to the network, and once they approve it and everyone’s on board, then if there are certain things like DNA and evidence that might need testing, we get all that going, along with ballistics that need researching, and stuff like phone records and so on. And it actually moves really fast – we usually get all these people on board within three weeks.

How long does it take to shoot each show?
Cook: It varies, as each show is different, but around seven or eight days, sometimes longer. We have a case coming up with cadaver dogs, and that stuff will happen before we even get to the location, so it all depends. And some cases will have 40 witnesses, while others might have over 100. So it’s flexible.

Cold Justice

Where do you post, and what’s the schedule like?
Scott Patch: We do it all at the Magical Elves offices here in Hollywood — the editing, sound, color correction. The online editor and colorist is Pepe Serventi, and we have it all on one floor, and it’s really convenient to have all the post in house. The schedule is roughly two months from the raw footage to getting it all locked and ready to air, which is quite a long time.

Dailies come back to us and we do our first initial pass by the story team and editors, and they’ll start whittling all the footage down. So it takes us a couple of weeks to just look at all the footage, as we usually have about 180 hours of it, and it takes a while to turn all that into something the editors can deal with. Then it goes through about three network passes with notes.

What about dealing with all the legal aspects?
Patch: That makes it a different kind of show from most of the others, so we have legal people making sure all the content is fine, and then sometimes we’ll also get notes from local law agencies, as well as internal notes from our own producers. That’s why it takes two months from start to finish.

Cook: We vet it through local law, and they see the cuts before it airs to make sure there are no problems. The biggest priority for us is that we don’t hurt the case at all with our show, so we always check it all with the local D.A. and police. And we don’t sensationalize anything.

Cold Justice

Patch: That’s another big part of editing and post – making sure we keep it authentic. That can be a challenge, but these are real cases with real people being accused of murder.

Cook: Our instinct is to make it dramatic, but you can’t do that. You have to protect the case, which might go to trial.

Talk about editing. You have several editors, I assume because of the time factor. How does that work?
Patch: Some of these cases have been cold for 25 or 30 years, so when the field team gets there, they really stand back and let the cops talk about the case, and we end up with a ton of stuff that you couldn’t fit into the time slot however hard you tried. So we have to decide what needs to be in, what doesn’t.

Cook: On day one, our “war room” day, we meet with the local law and everyone involved in the case, and that’s eight hours of footage right there.

Patch: And that gets cut down to just four or five minutes. We have a pretty small but tight team, with 10 editors who split up the episodes. Once in a while they’ll cross over, but we like to have each team and the producers stay with each episode as long as they can, as it’s so complicated. When you see the finished show, it doesn’t seem that complicated, but there are so many ways you could handle the footage that it really helps for each team to really take ownership of that particular episode.

How involved is Dick Wolf in post?
Cook: He loves the whole post process, and he watches all the cuts and has input.

Patch: He’s very supportive and obviously so experienced, and if we’re having a problem with something, he’ll give notes. And for the most part, the network gives us a lot of flexibility to make the show.

What about VFX on the show?
Patch: We have some, but nothing too fancy, and we use an outside VFX/graphics company, LOM Design. We have a lot of legal documents on the show, and that stuff gets animated, and we’ll also have some 3D crime scene VFX. The only other outside vendor is our composer, Robert ToTeras.


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.

Beecham House‘s VFX take viewers back in time

Cambridge, UK-based Vine FX was the sole visual effects vendor on Gurinder Chadha’s Beecham House, a new Sunday night drama airing on ITV in the UK. Set in the India of 1795, Beecham House is the story of John Beecham (Tom Bateman), an Englishman who resigned from military service to set up as an honorable trader of the East India Company.

The series was shot at Ealing Studios and at some locations in India, with the visual effects work focusing on the Port of Delhi, the emperor’s palace and Beecham’s house. Vine FX founder Michael Illingworth assisted during development of the series and supervised his team of artists, creating intricate set extensions, matte paintings and period assets.

To make the shots believable and true to the era, the Vine FX team consulted closely with the show’s production designer and researched the period thoroughly. All modern elements — wires, telegraph poles, cars and lamp posts — had to be removed from the shoot footage, but the biggest challenge for the team was the Port of Delhi itself, a key location in the series.

Vine FX created a digital matte painting to extend the port and added numerous 3D boats and 3D people people working on the docks to create a busy working port of 1795 — a complex task and achieved by the expert eye of the Vine team.

“The success of this type of VFX is in its subtlety. We had to create a Delhi of 1795 that the audience believed, and this involved a great deal of research into how this would have looked that was essential to making it realistic,” says Illingworth. “Hopefully, we managed to do this.  I’m particularly happy with the finished port sequences as originally there were just three boats.

“I worked very closely with on-set supervisor Oliver Milburn while he was on set in India so was very much part of the production process in terms of VFX,” he continues. “Oliver would send me reference material from the shoot; this is always fundamental to the outcome of the VFX, as it allows you to plan ahead and work out any potential upcoming challenges. I was working on the VFX in Cambridge while Oliver was on set in Delhi — perfect!”

Vine FX used Photoshop and Nuke are its main tools. The artists modeled assets with Maya and Zbrush and painted assets using Substance painter. They rendered with Arnold.

Vine FX is currently working on War of the Worlds for Fox Networks and Canal+, due for release next year.

The Umbrella Academy‘s Emmy-nominated VFX supe Everett Burrell

By Iain Blair

If all ambitious TV shows with a ton of visual effects aspire to be cinematic, then Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy has to be the gold standard. The acclaimed sci-fi, superhero, adventure mash-up was just Emmy-nominated for its season-ending episode “The White Violin,” which showcased a full range of spectacular VFX. This included everything from the fully-CG Dr. Pogo to blowing up the moon and a mansion to the characters’ varied superpowers. Those VFX, mainly created by movie powerhouse Weta Digital in New Zealand and Spin VFX in Toronto, indeed rival anything in cinema. This is partly thanks to Netflix’s 4K pipeline.

The Umbrella Academy is based on the popular, Eisner Award-winning comics and graphic novels created and written by Gerard Way (“My Chemical Romance”), illustrated by Gabriel Bá, and published by Dark Horse Comics.

The story starts when, on the same day in 1989, 43 infants are born to unconnected women who showed no signs of pregnancy the day before. Seven are adopted by Sir Reginald Hargreeves, a billionaire industrialist, who creates The Umbrella Academy and prepares his “children” to save the world. But not everything went according to plan. In their teenage years, the family fractured and the team disbanded. Now, six of the surviving members reunite upon the news of Hargreeves’ death. Luther, Diego, Allison, Klaus, Vanya and Number Five work together to solve a mystery surrounding their father’s death. But the estranged family once again begins to come apart due to divergent personalities and abilities, not to mention the imminent threat of a global apocalypse.

The live-action series stars Ellen Page, Tom Hopper, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Robert Sheehan, David Castañeda, Aidan Gallagher, Cameron Britton and Mary J. Blige. It is produced by Universal Content Productions for Netflix. Steve Blackman (Fargo, Altered Carbon) is the executive producer and showrunner, with additional executive producers Jeff F. King, Bluegrass Television, and Mike Richardson and Keith Goldberg from Dark Horse Entertainment.

Everett Burrell

I spoke with senior visual effects supervisor and co-producer Everett Burrell (Pan’s Labyrinth, Altered Carbon), who has an Emmy for his work on Babylon 5, about creating the VFX and the 4K pipeline.

Congratulations on being nominated for the first season-ending episode “The White Violin,” which showcased so many impressive visual effects.
Thanks. We’re all really proud of the work.

Have you started season two?
Yes, and we’re already knee-deep in the shooting up in Canada. We shoot in Toronto, where we’re based, as well as Hamilton, which has this great period look. So we’re up there quite a bit. We’re just back here in LA for a couple of weeks working on editorial with Steve Blackman, the executive producer and showrunner. Our offices are in Encino, in a merchant bank building. I’m a co-producer as well, so I also deal a lot with editorial — more than normal.

Have you planned out all the VFX for the new season?
To a certain extent. We’re working on the scripts and have a good jump on them. We definitely plan to blow the first season out of the water in terms of what we come up with.

What are the biggest challenges of creating all the VFX on the show?
The big one is the sheer variety of VFX, which are all over the map in terms of the various types. They go from a completely animated talking CG chimpanzee Dr. Pogo to creating a very unusual apocalyptic world, with scenes like blowing up the moon and, of course, all the superpowers. One of the hardest things we had to do — which no one will ever know just watching it — was a ton of leaf replacement on trees.

Digital leaves via Montreal’s Folks.

When we began shooting, it was winter and there were no leaves on the trees. When we got to editorial we realized that the story spans just eight days, so it wouldn’t make any sense if in one scene we had no leaves and in the next we had leaves. So we had to add every single leaf to the trees for all of the first five episodes, which was a huge amount of work. The way we did it was to go back to all the locations and re-shoot all the trees from the same angles once they were in bloom. Then we had to composite all that in. Folks in Montreal did all of it, and it was very complicated. Lola did a lot of great work on Hargreeves, getting his young look for the early 1900s and cleaning up the hair and wrinkles and making it all look totally realistic. That was very tricky too.

Netflix is ahead of the curve thanks to its 4K policy. Tell us about the pipeline.
For a start, we shoot with the ARRI Alexa 65, which is a very robust cinema camera that was used on The Revenant. With its 65mm sensor, it’s meant for big-scope, epic movies, and we decided to go with it to give our show that great cinema look. The depth of field is like film, and it can also emulate film grain for this fantastic look. That camera shoots natively at 5K — it won’t go any lower. That means we’re at a much higher resolution than any other show out there.

And you’re right, Netflix requires a 4K master as future-proofing for streaming and so on. Those very high standards then trickle down to us and all the VFX. We also use a very unique system developed by Deluxe and Efilm called Portal, which basically stores the entire show in the cloud on a server somewhere, and we can get background plates to the vendors within 10 minutes. It’s amazing. Back in the old days, you’d have to make a request and maybe within 24 or 48 hours, you’d get those plates. So this system makes it almost instantaneous, and that’s a lifesaver.

   
Method blows up the moon.

How closely do you work with Steve Blackman and the editors?
I think Steve said it best:”There’s no daylight between the two of us” We’re linked at the hip pretty much all the time. He comes to my office if he has issues, and I go to his if we have complications; we resolve all of it together in probably the best creative relationship I’ve ever had. He relies on me and counts on me, and I trust him completely. Bottom line, if we need to write ourselves out of a sticky situation, he’s also the head writer, so he’ll just go off and rewrite a scene to help us out.

How many VFX do you average for each show?
We average between 150 and 200 per episode. Last season we did nearly 2,000 in total, so it’s a huge amount for a TV show, and there’s a lot of data being pushed. Luckily, I have an amazing team, including my production manager Misato Shinohara. She’s just the best and really takes care of all the databases, and manages all the shot data, reference, slates and so on. All that stuff we take on set has to go into this massive database, and just maintaining that is a huge job.

Who are the main VFX vendors?
The VFX are mainly created by Weta in New Zealand and Spin VFX in Toronto. Weta did all the Pogo stuff. Then we have Folks, Lola, Marz, Deluxe Toronto, DigitalFilm Tree in LA… and then Method Studios in Vancouver did great work on our end-of-the-world apocalyptic sequence. They blew up the moon and had a chunk of it hitting the Earth, along with all the surrounding imagery. We started R&D on that pretty early to get a jump on it. We gave them storyboards and they did previz. We used that as a cut to get iterations of it all. There were a lot of particle simulations, which was pretty intense.

Weta created Dr. Pogo

What have been the most difficult VFX sequences to create?
Just dealing with Pogo is obviously very demanding, and we had to come up with a fast shortcut to dealing with the photo-real look as we just don’t have the time or budget they have for the Planet of the Apes movies. The big thing is integrating him in the room as an actor with the live actors, and that was a huge challenge. We used just two witness cameras to capture our Pogo body performer. All the apocalyptic scenes were also very challenging because of the scale, and then those leaves were very hard to do and make look real. That alone took us a couple of months. And we might have the same problem this year, as we’re shooting in the summer through fall, and I’m praying that the leaves don’t start falling before we wrap.

What have been the main advances in technology that have really helped you pull off some of the show’s VFX?
I think the rendering and the graphics cards are the big ones, and the hardware talks together much more efficiently now. Even just a few years ago, and it might have taken weeks and weeks to render a Pogo. Now we can do it in a day. Weta developed new software for creating the texture and fabric of Pogo’s clothes. They also refined their hair programs.

 

I assume as co-producer that you’re very involved with the DI?
I am… and keeping track of all that and making sure we keep pushing the envelope. We do the DI at Company 3 with colorist Jill Bogdanowicz, who’s a partner in all of this. She brings so much to the show, and her work is a big part of why it looks so good. I love the DI. It’s where all the magic happens, and I get in there early with Jill and take care of the VFX tweaks. Then Steve comes in and works on contrast and color tweaks.By the time Steve gets there, we’re probably 80% of the way there already.

What can fans expect from season two?
Bigger, better visual effects. We definitely pay attention to the fans. They love the graphic novel, so we’re getting more of that into the show.


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

DP Chat: David Makes Man’s Todd A. Dos Reis, ASC

The series David Makes Man follows a 14-year-old boy attending a prestigious magnet school and his formerly drug-addicted mother, who is relying on him and his potential to get them out of the rough Miami neighborhood they live in. David is torn between the streets he grew up on and the life he’s capable of living.

Written by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, an Oscar winner for co-writing Moonlight, David Makes Man will be premiere on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network on August 14. Along with McCraney, some of the show’s producers include Nantale Corbett, Mike Kelley, Michael B. Jordan, Oprah Winfrey. Dee Harris-Lawrence is a showrunner, along with McCraney.

The series depicts David’s two very different worlds — home and school — each of which  McCraney wanted to have different looks. He called on cinematographer Todd A. Dos Reis, ASC, to help create those two worlds. We reached out to Dos Reis to find out how he accomplished this and his workflow.

Tell us about David Makes Man. How would you describe the overarching look of the film?
Early on in pre-production, showrunner Tarell McCraney and I came up with the idea to have our young protagonist, David, live in two worlds and give each world its own distinct look.

One world was The Ville, the Miami housing project where he lived with his mother and younger brother. David’s home life was unpredictable, and we wanted the viewer to be on edge as David was on a daily basis. The Ville had low-income families and drug dealers that ran their business out of the projects. The Ville would not have the typical lushness dripping with color that everyone is used to seeing in Miami. Our Miami would be a desaturated limited color palette leaning toward the cool blue side of the color wheel.

David’s other world was his middle school that encompassed a warmer tone, with natural lighting that you would see in the early morning and the late afternoon. David is a prodigy and excels in this world, so we wanted to make this environment more welcoming.

How did the director tell you about the look that was wanted?
In our initial meeting, Tarell McCraney, the EP, showrunner and writer, talked about Fresh (1994) and Juice (1992) being a good place to start when discussing the tone of the show. He said he wanted David Makes Man to be a 10-hour film versus 10 one-hour episodes.

We also discussed the works of artist Kerry James Marshall when looking at the blackness of a frame. In David Makes Man, we wanted to accept darkness as a point of expression versus a deficit. Director Michael Williams came in with an amazing look book that referenced images from Mother of George, Daughters of the Dust, Selma and Belly.

How early did you get involved in the production?
As soon as I got the call from producer Wayne Morris that I was their choice for DP, I made myself available for discussions with the showrunners Tarell McCraney and Dee Lawrence Harris. I had three weeks of unofficial prep in Los Angeles and three weeks of prep in Orlando.

It was shot in Orlando?
The story of David Makes Man takes place in Miami, but we filmed in Orlando. We were based at Universal Studios Orlando, where we built the interiors of The Ville housing project apartments (David’s family apartment and friend of the family Elijah’s apartment) and any swing sets that appeared in various episodes. There was one day of filming in Miami with a second unit.

How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses?
There were many factors that I had to consider. First, how to visually create the two worlds of David. The Ville, where David lived, was going to be hand-held, subjective, wider lenses in your face, and more intimate and chaotic.

His school and outside The Ville world were going to be photographed on a stable platform, i.e. dollies, cranes and SteadiCam. This world was going to have a natural calming feel to offset his home life. I needed a camera that could be used hand-held, on a dolly and on a SteadiCam and switched back and forth quickly. I chose three ARRI Alexa Minis.

David’s two worlds were also enhanced by filming in both spherical and anamorphic. Discussions with the director of Episode 1, Michael Williams, led us to film The Ville with Cooke anamorphic lenses. Because many scenes in the story take place in David’s alternate reality, and I was going to be using the Lensbaby lenses to heighten David’s visions, the Cooke anamorphics created a great foundation to have under David’s visions. The spherical lenses, Cooke Panchro/i Classics, would be used to show the normalcy of David’s school and anything outside of The Ville.

Are there any scenes that you are particularly proud of or found most challenging?
Our most challenging scenes usually took place at The Ville. We built a two-story section of a housing project where some of the interior apartments were practical. For day exteriors in the ever-changing Florida sky and weather, we used a 40×40 quarter silk to cover the courtyard. We could have used an 80×80. Key grip Joel Wheatley and his crew managed the silk like a sail on a yacht, constantly trimming and adjusting for weather changes and shot selection.

Night exteriors at The Ville called for an array of lighting instruments. Working from the inner circle of the hallways, we built fluorescent housings to hang above the exterior hallways and hold two 4-foot cool white fluorescents with cyan 60. This would give our wide range of African American skin tones an unnatural and eerie color. The next circle of color is what lit The Ville courtyard and exterior.

Gaffer Marc Wostak bought safety lights at a local hardware store, and we gelled them with high sodium gel. We built four poles for inside the courtyard and hung the gelled safety lights on the outside corners of each housing project building. The final outside diameter of The Ville had a sprinkling of mercury vapor lighting (1/2 blue and ¼ plus green). To give moonlight ambience, we always used one or two helium balloons above the courtyard and parking area at The Ville. Because helium was a rare commodity on our budget, we usually hung the balloons without helium from 80-foot Condors.

Without giving any story points away, there were night interior scenes where there was no electricity and we were blocked out of any possible moonlight. Being a big fan of John Alcott, BSC, and the film Barry Lyndon, I took my impetus from here. Not having the fast T1.3 lens that Mr. Alcott used, I had the art department buy every three-wick and two-wick candle they could find in Orlando. I augmented the scenes with small china balls and LED Light Gear patches that I could tape to candles and hide behind objects in the room. In some scenes we had the luxury of a character carrying a flashlight, but that was rare.

The most challenging scene would have to be when two characters have a heated discussion with someone holding a Zippo lighter. We taped four dots of tungsten LED Light Gear to the back side of the Zippo and ran the cable down the actor’s wardrobe with my gaffer Marc Wostak walking and adjusting as the actor moved around the room. The choreography between camera operator Bob Scott, Marc Wostak and the actors was something out of a Bob Fosse film.

Can you talk about shooting anamorphic for The Ville housing project scenes?
We wanted to shoot David’s world at The Ville with anamorphic lenses because this is the place he did not want to be. One of David’s main goals in the story is to get out of this life at The Ville. I felt the anamorphic lenses would help isolate David from his surroundings and the drug dealers he didn’t want to be associated with.

The shallow depth of field that the lenses give you was a characteristic that we wanted to create visually. We wanted to show the emotions on his face that David was going through as well as heighten the tension of what was lurking around the dark corners of The Ville. The lenses also helped in giving us a more filmic quality and made all the episodes feel more like a feature film instead of 10 episodes.

How did you become interested in cinematography?
From an early age, I watched a great deal of TV and frequented the local movie theater to see any film that hit my small city of New Bedford, Massachusetts. It started with Disney films with my family, then went to Bruce Lee triple features and the Blaxploitation genre.

When I was 13, my grandparents bought me my first Canon still camera and I was fascinated. This led me to photography classes and running the TV studio at my high school. My love for the image grew, and I researched the best film schools for college. I ended up at USC Cinema. I started focusing on cinematography and learned that I could tell a story with just the visual image.

What inspires you artistically? And how do you simultaneously stay on top of advancing technology that serves your vision?
I am inspired artistically by the journey to be original. I am constantly trying to never repeat myself, and I never want to imitate anyone else in this industry. I use other DPs and directors that I admire as inspirations.

I try to stay on top of advancing technology that serves my vision by always educating myself and surrounding myself with artists and craftsmen who are willing to take chances and are not afraid of failing.

What new technology has changed the way you work (looking back over the past few years)?
I think all the advancements in the LED lighting category have opened up amazing opportunities for filmmakers. In productions where space is always a factor, there is always some nook and cranny to create beautiful, artistic or dramatic lighting.

What are some of your best practices or rules you try to follow on each job?
On every project, I use the script as my bible. What is the story? What is the auteur trying to convey? What is the emotion of each scene? My job is to visually collaborate with the director, showrunner or writer to get their vision to the screen. The rule I try to follow is that there are no rules in filmmaking. The more rules I can break, the more original I will be as an artist.

Explain your ideal collaboration with the director when setting the look of a project.
It starts with the script. I like to meet with a director as early and as often as possible. If a director is open to ideas that are not his/hers, then I know I am in a good place. Sharing ideas, watching films together and collaborating and experimenting on the set opens up my creativity.

What’s your go-to gear (camera, lens, mount/accessories) — things you can’t live without?
My most recent go-to gear is a set of Lensbaby lenses that my camera house, Otto Nemenz, created for me. I am also a big fan of Tiffen and Schneider streak filters. The lighting instrument that I can’t do without is a Source Four Leko. I would like to do a project with all Lekos, daylight and tungsten.


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

Creating and mixing authentic sounds for HBO’s Deadwood movie

By Jennifer Walden

HBO’s award-winning series Deadwood might have aired its final episode 13 years ago, but it’s recently found new life as a movie. Set in 1889 — a decade after the series finale — Deadwood: The Movie picks up the threads of many of the main characters’ stories and weaves them together as the town of Deadwood celebrates the statehood of South Dakota.

Deadwood: The Movie

The Deadwood: The Movie sound team.

The film, which aired on HBO and is available on Amazon, picked up eight 2019 Emmy nominations including in the categories of sound editing, sound mixing and  best television movie.

Series creator David Milch has returned as writer on the film. So has director Daniel Minahan, who helmed several episodes of the series. The film’s cast is populated by returning members, as is much of the crew. On the sound side, there are freelance production sound mixer Geoffrey Patterson; 424 Post’s sound designer, Benjamin Cook; NBCUniversal StudioPost’s re-recording mixer, William Freesh; and Mind Meld Arts’ music editor, Micha Liberman. “Series composers Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek — who haven’t been a composing team in many years — have reunited just to do this film. A lot of people came back for this opportunity. Who wouldn’t want to go back to Deadwood?” says Liberman.

Freelance supervising sound editor Mandell Winter adds, “The loop group used on the series was also used on the film. It was like a reunion. People came out of retirement to do this. The richness of voices they brought to the stage was amazing. We shot two days of group for the film, covering a lot of material in that limited time to populate Deadwood.”

Deadwood (the film and series) was shot on a dedicated film ranch called Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio in Newhall, California. The streets, buildings and “districts” are consistently laid out the same way. This allowed the sound team to use a map of the town to orient sounds to match each specific location and direction that the camera is facing.

For example, there’s a scene in which the town bell is ringing. As the picture cuts to different locations, the ringing sound is panned to show where the bell is in relation to that location on screen. “We did that for everything,” says co-supervising sound editor Daniel Colman, who along with Freesh and re-recording mixer John Cook, works at NBCUniversal StudioPost. “You hear the sounds of the blacksmith’s place coming from where it would be.”

“Or, if you’re close to the Chinese section of the town, then you hear that. If you were near the saloons, that’s what you hear. They all had different sounds that were pulled forward from the series into the film,” adds re-recording mixer Freesh.

Many of the exterior and interior sounds on set were captured by Benjamin Cook, who was sound effects editor on the original Deadwood series. Since it’s a practical location, they had real horses and carriages that Cook recorded. He captured every door and many of the props. Colman says, “We weren’t guessing at what something sounded like; we were putting in the actual sounds.”

The street sounds were an active part of the ambience in the series, both day and night. There were numerous extras playing vendors plying their wares and practicing their crafts. Inside the saloons and out in front of them, patrons talked and laughed. Their voices — performed by the loop group in post — helped to bring Deadwood alive. “The loop group we had was more than just sound effects. We had to populate the town with people,” says Winter, who scripted lines for the loopers because they were played more prominently in the mix than what you’d typically hear. “Having the group play so far forward in a show is very rare. It had to make sense and feel timely and not modern.”

In the movie, the street ambience isn’t as strong a sonic component. “The town had calmed down a little bit as it’s going about its business. It’s not quite as bustling as it was in the series. So that left room for a different approach,” says Freesh.

The attenuation of street ambience was conducive to the cinematic approach that director Minahan wanted to take on Deadwood: The Movie. He used music to help the film feel bigger and more dramatic than the series, notes Liberman. Re-recording mixer John Cook adds, “We experimented a lot with music cues. We saw scenes take on different qualities, depending on whether the music was in or out. We worked hard with Dan [Minahan] to end up with the appropriate amount of music in the film.”

Minahan even introduced music on set by way of a piano player inside the Gem Saloon. Production sound mixer Patterson says, “Dan was very active on the set in creating a mood with that music for everyone that was there. It was part and parcel of the place at that time.”

Authenticity was a major driving force behind Deadwood’s aesthetics. Each location on set was carefully dressed with era-specific props, and the characters were dressed with equal care, right down to their accessories, tools and weapons. “The sound of Seth Bullock’s gun is an actual 1889 Remington revolver, and Calamity Jane’s gun is an 1860’s Colt Army cavalry gun. We’ve made every detail as real and authentic as possible, including the train whistle that opens the film. I wasn’t going to just put in any train whistle. It’s the 1880s Black Hills steam engine that actually went through Deadwood,” reports Colman.

The set’s wooden structures and elevated boardwalk that runs in front of the establishments in the heart of town lent an authentic character to the production sound. The creaky wooden doors and thumpiness of footsteps across the raised wooden floors are natural sounds the audience would expect to hear from that environment. “The set for Deadwood was practical and beautiful and amazing. You want to make sure that you preserve that realness and let the 1800s noises come through. You don’t want to over sterilize the tracks. You want them to feel organic,” says Patterson.

Freesh adds, “These places were creaky and noisy. Wind whistled through the windows. You just embrace it. You enhance it. That was part of the original series sound, and it followed through in the movie as well.”

The location was challenging due to its proximity to real-world civilization and all of our modern-day sonic intrusions, like traffic, airplanes and landscaping equipment from a nearby neighborhood. Those sounds have no place in the 1880s world of Deadwood, but “if we always waited for the moment to be perfect, we would never make a day’s work,” says Patterson. “My mantra was always to protect every precious word of David Milch’s script and to preserve the performances of that incredible cast.”

In the end, the modern-day noises at the location weren’t enough to require excessive ADR. John Cook says, “Geoffrey [Patterson] did a great job of capturing the dialogue. Then, between the choices the picture editors made for different takes and the work that Mandell [Winter] did, there were only one or two scenes in the whole movie that required extra attention for dialogue.”

Winter adds, “Even denoising the tracks, I didn’t take much out. The tracks sounded really good when they got to us. I just used iZotope RX 7 and did our normal pass with it.”

Any fan of Deadwood knows just how important dialogue clarity is since the show’s writing is like Shakespeare for the American West — with prolific profanity, of course. The word choices and their flow aren’t standard TV script fare. To help each word come through clearly, Winter notes they often cut in both the boom and lav mic tracks. This created nice, rich dialogue for John Cook to mix.

On the stage, John Cook used the FabFilter Pro-Q 2 to work each syllable, making sure the dialogue sounded bright and punchy and not too muddy or tubby. “I wanted the audience to hear every word without losing the dynamics of a given monologue or delivery. I wanted to maintain the dynamics, but make sure that the quieter moments were just as intelligible as the louder moments,” he says.

In the film, several main characters experience flashback moments in which they remember events from the series. For example, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) recalls the death of Jen (Jennifer Lutheran) from the Season 3 finale. These flashbacks — or hauntings, as the post team refers to them — went through several iterations before the team decided on the most effective way to play each one. “We experimented with how to treat them. Do we go into the actor’s head and become completely immersed in the past? Or, do we stay in the present — wherever we are — and give it a slight treatment? Or, should there not be any sounds in the haunting? In the end, we decided they weren’t all going to be handled the same,” says Freesh.

Before coming together for the final mix on Mix 6 at NBCUniversal StudioPost on the Universal Studios Lot in Los Angeles, John Cook and Freesh pre-dubbed Deadwood: The Movie in separate rooms as they’d do on a typical film — with Freesh pre-dubbing the backgrounds, effects, and Foley while Cook pre-dubbed the dialogue and music.

The pre-dubbing process gave Freesh and John Cook time to get the tracks into great shape before meeting up for the final mix. Freesh concludes, “We were able to, with all the people involved, listen to the film in real good condition from the first pass down and make intelligent decisions based on what we were hearing. It really made a big difference in making this feel like Deadwood.”


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

Creating Foley for FX’s Fosse/Verdon

Alchemy Post Sound created Foley for Fosse/Verdon, FX’s miniseries about choreographer Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and his collaborator and wife, the singer/dancer Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams). Working under the direction of supervising sound editors Daniel Timmons and Tony Volante, Foley artist Leslie Bloome and his team performed and recorded hundreds of custom sound effects to support the show’s dance sequences and add realistic ambience to its historic settings.

Spanning five decades, Fosse/Verdon focuses on the romantic and creative partnership between Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. The former was a visionary filmmaker and one of the theater’s most influential choreographers and directors, while the latter was one of the greatest Broadway dancers of all time.

Given the subject matter, it’s hardly surprising that post production sound was a crucial element in the series. For its many musical scenes, Timmons and Volante were tasked with conjuring intricate sound beds to match the choreography and meld seamlessly with the score. They also created dense soundscapes to back the very distinctive environments of film sets and Broadway stages, as well as a myriad of other exterior and interior locations.

For Timmons, the project’s mix of music and drama posed significant creative challenges but also a unique opportunity. “I grew up in upstate New York and originally hoped to work in live sound, potentially on Broadway,” he recalls. “With this show, I got to work with artists who perform in that world at the highest level. It was not so much a television show as a blend of Broadway music, Broadway acting and television. It was fun to collaborate with people who were working at the top of their game.”

The crew drew on an incredible mix of sources in assembling the sound. Timmons notes that to recreate Fosse’s hacking cough (a symptom of his overuse of prescription medicine), they poured through audio stems from the classic 1979 film All That Jazz. “Roy Scheider, who played Bob Fosse’s alter ego in the film, was unable to cough like him, so Bob went into a recording studio and did some of the coughing himself,” Timmons says. “We ended up using those old recordings along with ADR of Sam Rockwell. When Bob’s health starts to go south, some of the coughing you hear is actually him. Maybe I’m superstitious, but for me it helped to capture his identity. I felt like the spirit of Bob Fosse was there on the set.”

A large portion of the post sound effects were created by Alchemy Post Sound. Most notably, Foley artists meticulously reproduced the footsteps of dancers. Foley tap dancing can be heard throughout the series, not only in musical sequences, but also in certain transitions. “Bob Fosse got his start as a tap dancer, so we used tap sounds as a motif,” explains Timmons. “You hear them when we go into and out of flashbacks and interior monologues.”Along with Bloome, Alchemy’s team included Foley artist Joanna Fang, Foley mixers Ryan Collison and Nick Seaman, and Foley assistant Laura Heinzinger.

Ironically, Alchemy had to avoid delivering sounds that were “too perfect.”  Fang points out that scenes depicting musical performances from films were meant to represent the production of those scenes rather than the final product. “We were careful to include natural background sounds that would have been edited out before the film was delivered to theaters,” she explains, adding that those scenes also required Foley to match the dancers’ body motion and costuming. “We spent a lot of time watching old footage of Bob Fosse talking about his work, and how conscious he was not just of the dancers’ footwork, but their shuffling and body language. That’s part of what made his art unique.”

Foley production was unusually collaborative. Alchemy’s team maintained a regular dialogue with the sound editors and were continually exchanging and refining sound elements. “We knew going into the series that we needed to bring out the magic in the dance sequences,” recalls production Foley editor Jonathan Fuhrer. “I spoke with Alchemy every day. I talked with Ryan and Nick about the tonalities we were aiming for and how they would play in the mix. Leslie and Joanna had so many interesting ideas and approaches; I was ceaselessly amazed by the thought they put into performances, props, shoes and surfaces.”

Alchemy also worked hard to achieve realism in creating sounds for non-musical scenes. That included tracking down props to match the series’ different time periods. For a scene set in a film editing room in the 1950s, the crew located a 70-year-old Steenbeck flatbed editor to capture its unique sounds. As musical sequences involved more than tap dancing, the crew assembled a collection of hundreds of pairs of shoes to match the footwear worn by individual performers in specific scenes.

Some sounds undergo subtle changes over the course of the series relative to the passage of time. “Bob Fosse struggled with addictions and he is often seen taking anti-depression medication,” notes Seaman. “In early scenes, we recorded pills in a glass vial, but for scenes in later decades, we switched to plastic.”

Such subtleties add richness to the soundtrack and help cement the character of the era, says Timmons. “Alchemy fulfilled every request we made, no matter how far-fetched,” he recalls. “The number of shoes that they used was incredible. Broadway performers tend to wear shoes with softer soles during rehearsals and shoes with harder soles when they get close to the show. The harder soles are more strenuous. So the Foley team was always careful to choose the right shoes depending on the point in rehearsal depicted in the scene. That’s accuracy.”

The extra effort also resulted in Foley that blended easily with other sound elements, dialogue and music. “I like Alchemy’s work because it has a real, natural and open sound; nothing sounds augmented,” concludes Timmons. “It sounds like the room. It enhances the story even if the audience doesn’t realize it’s there. That’s good Foley.”

Alchemy used Neumann KMR 81 and U 87 mics, Millennia mic pres, Apogee converters, and C24 mixer into Avid Pro Tools.

DP Chat: Good Omens cinematographer Gavin Finney

By Randi Altman

London-born cinematographer Gavin Finney, BSC, has a wealth of television series and film experience under his belt, including Wolf Hall, The Fear and the upcoming series based on the film of the same name, Hulu’s Four Weddings and a Funeral. One of his most recent projects was the six-episode Amazon series Good Omens, starring Michael Sheen (Aziraphale) and David Tennant (Crowley) as an angel and a demon with a very long history, who are tasked with saving the world. It’s based on the book by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.

Finney was drawn to cinematography by his love of still photography and telling stories. He followed that passion to film school and fell in love with what could be done with moving images.

Let’s find out more about Finney and his work on Good Omens.

How would you describe the look of Good Omens? How did you work with the director/s/producers to achieve the look they wanted?
There is a progression through the story where things get increasingly strange as Adam (who our main characters believe is the antichrist) comes into his powers, and things in his head start manifesting themselves. It is also a 6,000-year-long buddy movie between an angel and a demon! There is Adam’s world — where everything is heightened and strangely perfect — and Aziraphale and Crowley’s world of heaven and hell. At some point, all these worlds intersect. I had to keep a lot of balls in the air in regard to giving each section its own look, but also making sure that when these worlds collide, it still makes sense.

Each era depicted in the series had a different design treatment — obviously in the case of costume and production design — but also in the way we shot each scene and the way they were lit. For instance, Neil Gaiman had always imagined the scene in the church in the blitz in Episode 3 to be an homage to the film noir style of the time, and we lit and photographed it in that style. Ancient Rome was given the patina of an Alma-Tadema oil painting, and we shot Elizabethan London in an exact recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The ‘60s were shot mainly on our Soho set, but redressed with posters from that time, and we changed the lighting to use more neon and used bare bulbs for signage.

I also graded the dailies throughout production on DaVinci Resolve, adding film grain and different looks to different time periods to help anchor where we were in the story. Neil wanted heaven and hell to feel like two parts of the same celestial building, so heaven occupied the best penthouse offices, and hell was stuck in the damp, moldy basement where nothing works properly.

We found a huge empty building for the heaven set that had shiny metal flooring and white walls. I frosted all the windows and lit them from outside using 77 ARRI Skypanels linked to a dimmer desk so we could control the light over the day. We also used extremely wide-angle lenses such as the Zeiss rectilinear 8mm lens to make the space look even bigger. The hell set used a lot of old, slightly greenish fluorescent fittings, some of them flickering on and off. Slimy dark walls and leaking pipes were added into the mix.

For another sequence Neil and Douglas wanted an old-film look. To do this, ARRI Media in London constructed a hand-cranked digital camera out of an old ARRI D21 camera and connected it to an ARRI 435 hand-crank wheel and then to a Codex recorder. This gave us a realistic, organic varis-peed/vari-exposure look. I added a Lensbaby in a deliberately loose mount to emulate film weave and vignetting. In this way I was able to reproduce very accurately the old-style, hand-cranked black and white look of the first days of cinema.

How early did you get involved in the production?
I’d worked with the director Douglas Mackinnon a few times before (on Gentlemen’s Relish and The Flying Scotsman), and I’d wanted to work with him again a number of times but was never available. When I heard he was doing this project, I was extremely keen to get involved, as I loved the book and especially the kind of world that Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett were so good at creating. Fortunately, he asked me to join the team, and I dropped everything I was doing to come on board. I joined the show quite late and had to fly from London to Cape Town on an early scout the day after getting the job!

How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses for this project?
We shot on Leica Summilux Primes and ARRI Alura zooms (15.5-45mm and 45-
250mm) and ARRI Alexa SXT and Alexa Mini cameras outputting UHD 4K files. The Alexa camera is very reliable, easy to work with, looks great and has very low noise in the color channels, which is useful for green/bluescreen work. It can also shoot at 120fps without cutting into the sensor size. We also had to make sure that both cameras and lenses were easily available in Cape Town, where we filmed after the
UK section.

The Alexa output is also very flexible in the grade, and we knew we were going to be pushing the look in a number of directions in post. We also shot with the Phantom Flex 4K high-speed camera at 1,000fps for some scenes requiring ultra-slo motion, and for one particular sequence, a specially modified ARRI D-21 that could be “hand-cranked” like an old movie camera.

You mentioned using Resolve on set. Is this how you usually work? What benefit did you get from doing this?
We graded the dailies on Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve with our DIT Rich
Simpson. We applied different looks to each period of the story, often using a modified film emulation plugin. It’s very important to me that the dailies look great and that we start to establish a look early on that can inform the grade later.

Rich would bring me a variety of looks each day and we’d pick the one we liked for that day’s work. Rich was also able to export our selected looks and workflow to the South African DIT in Cape Town. This formed the starting point of the online grade done at Molinare on FilmLight Baselight under the hugely capable hands of Gareth Spensley. Gareth had a big influence on the look of the series and did some fantastic work balancing all the different day exteriors and adding some magic.

Any challenging scenes you are particularly proud of?
We had some very big sets and locations to light, and the constantly moving style of photography we employed is always a challenge to light — you have to keep all the fixtures out of shot, but also look after the actors and make sure the tone is right for the scene. A complicated rig was the Soho street set that Michael Ralph designed and built on a disused airbase. This involved four intersecting streets with additional alleyways, many shops and a main set — the bookshop belonging to Aziraphale.

This was a two-story composite set (the interior led directly to the exterior). Not only did we have to execute big crane moves that began looking down at the whole street section and then flew down and “through” the windows of the bookshop and into an interior scene. We also had to rig the set knowing that we were going to burn the whole thing down.

Another challenge was that we were filming in the winter and losing daylight at 3:30pm but needing to shoot day exterior scenes to 8pm or later. My gaffer (Andy Bailey) and I designed a rig that covered the whole set (involving eight cranes, four 18Kw HMIs and six six-meter helium hybrid balloons) so that we could seamlessly continue filming daylight scenes as it got dark and went to full night without losing any time. We also had four 20×20-foot mobile self-lighting greenscreens that we could move about the set to allow for the CGI extensions being added later.

What inspires you artistically? And how do you simultaneously stay on top of advancing technology that serves your vision?
The script inspires me artistically. If I don’t love the story and can’t immediately “see” how it might look, I don’t do it. After that, I’m inspired by real life and the way changing light utterly transforms a scene, be it a landscape or an interior. I also visit art galleries regularly to understand how other people see, imagine and communicate.

What new technology has changed the way you work (looking back over the past few years)?
Obviously, digital cinematography has had a huge impact. I trained in film and spent the first 16 years of my career shooting film exclusively, but I was happy to embrace digital when it came in. I love keeping up with all the advances.

Lighting is also going digital with the advent of LED fixtures with on-board computers. I can now dial any gel color or mix my own at any dimmer level from an app on my phone and send it to dozens of fixtures. There is an incredible array of tools now at our disposal, and I find that very exciting and creatively liberating.

What are some of your best practices or rules you try to follow on each job?
I tend to work on quite long jobs — my last two shows shot for 109 and 105 days, respectively. So keeping to sensible hours is critical. Experienced producers who are concerned with the welfare, health and safety of their crew keep to 10 hours on camera, a one-hour lunch and five-days weeks only. Anything in excess of that results in diminishing returns and an exhausted and demoralized crew.

I also think prep time is incredibly important, and this is another area that’s getting squeezed by inexperienced producers to the detriment of the production. Prep time is a comparatively cheap part of the process but one that reaps huge dividends on the shoot. Being fully prepared, making the right location and set design choices, and having enough to time to choose equipment and crew and work out lighting designs all make for a smooth-running shoot.

Explain your ideal collaboration with the director when setting the look of a project.
This goes back to having enough prep time. The more time there is to visit possible locations and simply talk through all the options for looks, style, movement and general approach the better. I love working with visual directors who can communicate their ideas but who welcome input. I also like being able to ditch the plan on the day and go with something better if it suddenly presents itself. I like being pushed out of my comfort zone and challenged to come up with something wonderful and fresh.

What’s your go-to gear — things you can’t live without?
I always start a new production from scratch, and I like to test everything that’s available and proven in the field. I like to use a selection of equipment — often different cameras and lenses that I feel suit the aesthetic of the show. That said, I think
ARRI Alexa cameras are reliable and flexible and produce very “easy to work with” images.

I’ve been using the Letus Helix Double and Infinity (provided by Riz at Mr Helix) with an Exhauss exoskeleton support vest quite a lot. It’s a very flexible tool that I can operate myself and it produces great results. The Easyrig is also a great back-saver when doing a lot of handheld-work, as the best cameras aren’t getting any lighter.

Apart from that, comfortable footwear and warm, waterproof clothing are essential!


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

Editing for Episodics

By Karen Moltenbrey

Consistency is important when editing series. Initially, the editor may collaborate with the director and DP on the style of the show, and once it is set, the focus is on supporting that direction, reflecting the essence and feel of the show and the performance of the characters.

However, not every series is the same, and editors adapt their editing pattern and pacing based on the project’s genre. For instance, the pacing of a comedy should elevate the punchline, not detract from it, whereas with a drama, choosing the best performance that fits the story is paramount. Additionally, the use of music and sound design can heighten the emotion or tension far more than, say, in a comedy.

Here we look at two very different series — a comedy and a drama — and examine how the editors approached the cut on their respective shows.

Insecure
Life is complicated, especially for the main characters of HBO’s Insecure, which focuses on two African American women as they navigate modern-day life in Los Angeles. Best friends since college and now in their late 20s, they are trying to find their footing both personally and professionally, with Issa Dee working at a nonprofit school and living with her longtime boyfriend, and Molly Carter finding success as a lawyer but less so in her dating life.

The comedy has been renewed for a fourth season, which will be released sometime in 2019. The series debuted in 2016 and is created by Issa Rae — who plays the main character Issa Dee — and Larry Wilmore. A number of people have directed and served as DP, and there have been four editors, including Nena Erb, ACE, who came aboard during Season 3.

“The series is built around [Issa’s and Molly’s] experiences as they try to find their place in the world. When I approach a scene, I do so from their point of view,” says Erb. “South LA is also portrayed as a character in the series; we do our best to incorporate shots of the various neighborhoods in each episode so viewers get a flavor of the city.”

According to Erb, the composition for the series is cinematic and unconventional from the typical television series. “The editing pattern is also not the typical start with a master, go to medium shots, close-up and so forth,” she says. “Having unique composition and coming up with interesting ways to transition in and out of a scene give this series a distinct visual style that’s unlike other television shows out right now.”

Nena Erb

Scenes wherein Issa is the focus are shot mostly handheld. The shots have more movement and convey a sense of uncertainty and flux, which is in keeping with the character, who is trying to find herself when it comes to her career. On the other hand, Molly’s scenes are typically locked-off to convey steadiness, as she is a little more settled in her career as an attorney. For example, in “Fresh-Like” (Season 3 Episode 4), Molly has a difficult time establishing herself after taking a job at a new law firm, and things are not going as smoothly as she had hoped. When she discusses her frustrations with her therapist, the scene was shot with locked-off cameras since it focuses on Molly, but camera moves were then added in the edit to give it a handheld look to convey she was on unsteady ground at that moment.

Erb edits the series on an Avid Media Composer, and temp effects are done in Adobe Photoshop and After Effects.

Erb’s workflow for Insecure is similar to other series she has edited. She reads the script a few times, and before starting dailies, will re-read the scene she is working on that day, paying particular attention to the screen direction. “That is extremely helpful in letting me know the tone of the scene. I like having that fresh in my mind when I watch the dailies,” says Erb. She also reviews all the circle as well as non-circle takes — a step that is time-consuming but ensures she is using all the best performances. “And sometimes there are hidden gems in the non-circle takes that make all the difference, so I feel it’s worth the time to watch them all,” she adds.

While watching the dailies, Erb often jots down notes while cutting it in her head. Then she sits down and starts putting the scene together in the actual edit.

When Erb signed on to do the series, the style and tone were already established, and the crew had been together since the beginning. “It’s never easy to come into a show like that,” she says. “I was the new kid on the block who had to figure out team dynamics in addition to learning the style of the show. My biggest challenge was to make sure my work was in the language of the series, while still maintaining my own sense of style.”

Insofar as social media has become a big part of everyone’s life, it is now turning up in series such as Insecure, where it has become a recurring character — although in the episode titled “Obsessed-Like,” it is much more. As Erb explains, Insecure uses social media graphics as elements that play on the screen next to the person texting or tweeting. But in that episode, the editor wanted the audience alongside Issa as she checks on her new love interest Nathan and used social media graphics in a completely different way than had been done previously on the show.

“I told my assistant editor, Lynarion Hubbard, that I wanted her to create all these graphics in a way that they could be edited as if they were dailies. Doing so enabled me to use them full-screen, and I could animate them so they could crash-zoom into the shot of this woman kissing Nathan and then tilt down to the caption, which is when you realize the woman is his mom, as she delivers the punchline, ‘Oh, it’s your mom. She looks young for 50,’” says Erb.

“I felt the graphics made me more invested and allowed me to experience the emotional roller coaster with Issa as she obsesses over being ghosted. It was a risk to use them that way because it wasn’t in the language of the show. Fortunately for me, the producers loved it, and that episode was nominated for an ACE Eddie Award earlier this year.”

Erb might be new to Insecure, but she feels a personal connection to the series: When she and her family first immigrated to the US, they settled in Ladera Heights, and she attended school in Inglewood. “I remember this awkward girl who didn’t speak a word of English, and yet the neighbors welcomed us with open arms,” she recalls. “That community will always be special to me. The series pokes fun at Ladera Heights, but I think it’s great that they are highlighting a part of South LA that was my first connection in the US.”

Erb predominantly edits television series, but she has also edited feature films and documentaries. “I’d say I am drawn to powerful stories and captivating characters rather than a genre or format. Performance is paramount. Everything is in service of the story and the characters, regardless of whether it’s a series or a film,” she states.

On a series, “it’s a sprint to the finish, especially if it’s a series that has started airing while you’re still shooting and editing the later episodes. You’ll have anywhere from one to three days after the last day of dailies to do your editor’s cut, and then it’s off to the director, producers, the studio and so forth,” Erb explains. Conversely, with the features she has done, the schedule has offered more wiggle room – more time to do the editor’s cut and more time for the directors’ involvement. “And you have the luxury to experiment and sit with the cut to make sure it is working.”

In addition to Insecure, Erb has worked on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Being Mary Jane and Project Greenlight, to name a few. And each has its own recipe. For instance, Crazy Ex has music videos in each episode that run the gamut from the ’50s to present day, from a Fosse-inspired number to ’80s rock, ’90s hip-hop and three decades of the Beach Boys. “In an industry where it is easy to get pigeonholed, being able to work on a show that allows you to challenge yourself with different genres is rare, and I loved the experience.”

Ozark
At first glance, the Ozarks seem to be a tranquil place, a wholesome, idyllic location to raise a family. But, looks can be deceiving, especially when it comes to the Netflix family crime drama Ozark, which will be starting its third season sometime this year.

The series follows financial planner Marty Byrde, who relocates with his family from Chicago to the summer resort area of Osage Beach, Missouri, in the Ozark Mountains. The move is not voluntary. To make amends for a scheme that went awry, he must launder millions of dollars belonging to a Mexican drug cartel through the Ozarks. Soon he becomes entangled with local criminals.

Jason Bateman, who plays Marty, directed some of the episodes in Season 1 and 2, with other directors filling that role as well. Editing the series since it began is Cindy Mollo, ACE, and Heather Goodwin Floyd, who have a longtime working relationship. Goodwin Floyd, who was Mollo’s assistant editor for many years, started on both seasons of Ozark in the assistant role but also edited and co-edited episodes in each season.

Cindy Mollo

When Mollo first met with Bateman to talk about the project, they discussed the series as being akin to a 10-hour feature. “He wanted to spend time in moments, giving time to the performances, and not be too ‘cutty’ or too manipulative,” she says. “There’s a tendency with someone like Bateman to always be looking for the comedy and to cut for comedy, but ours is a dramatic show where sometimes things just happen to be funny; we don’t cut for that.”

The show has a naturalistic feel, and many scenes are shot outdoors, but there is always a lingering sense of threat, played up with heavy shadows. The look, as the humor, is dark, in a figurative and literal way. And the editors play into the suspense. “By letting moments play out, it helps put you in the head of the character, figuring things out as you go along. So, you’re not ever letting the audience get ahead of the character by showing them something that the character doesn’t see,” explains Mollo. “There’s a little bit of a remoteness in that, so you’re not really spoon-feeding the audience.”

On Ozark, the editors make sure they do not get in the way of the material. The writing is so solid, says Mollo, and the performances are so good, “the challenge is to resist the temptation to impose too much on the material and to just achieve the goals of the scene. Doing things simply and elegantly, that is how I approach this series.”

Goodwin Floyd agrees. “We support the material and let it speak for itself, and tell the story in the most authentic way possible,” she adds.

The series is set in the Ozarks but is filmed outside Atlanta, where the dailies are processed before they are sent to editorial. Assistants pull all the media into a Media Composer, where the cut is done.

Heather Goodwin Floyd

According to Mollo, she and Goodwin Floyd have four days to work on their cut. Then the directors have four days per episode to work with them. “We’re cross-boarded, so that ends up being eight days with the director for two episodes, for the most part,” she says. After that, the producers are brought in, and as Mollo points out, Bateman is very involved in the edit. Once the producers sign off, the final cut is sent to producer Media Rights Capital (MRC) and Netflix.

The first two seasons of Ozark were shot at 4K; this season, it is shot at nearly 6K, though delivery to Netflix is still at 4K.

Both editors have a range of experience in terms of genres. Goodwin Floyd started out in features and now primarily edits TV dramas. Mollo got her start in commercials and then migrated to dramatic series, with some TV movies and features, as well. “I love the mix. Honestly, I love doing both [series and films]. I have fun when I’m on a series, and then it seems like every two years or so I get to do a feature. With everyone editing digitally, the feature process has become very similar to the television process,” she says. “It’s just a little more director-focused rather than producer/writer-focused.”

For Goodwin Floyd, she’s drawn more to the content as opposed to the format. “I started in features and at the time thought I wanted to stay in features, but the quality of series on television has evolved and gotten so great that I love working in TV as much as in features,” she says.

With the rise of cable, then premium movie channels and now streaming services, Mollo says there is a feeling that the material can be trusted more, that there is no longer the need to feel like you have to be cutting every couple of seconds to keep the audience excited and engaged. For instance, when she worked on House of Cards, the MRC and Netflix executives were very hands-off — they wanted to have a fantastic opening episode every season and a really compelling cliffhanger, and for everything in between, they trusted the filmmakers to take care of it.

“I really gravitated toward that trend of trusting the filmmakers, and it is resulting in some really great television,” says Mollo.

In as much as we are in a golden age of television, Mollo also believes we are in a golden age of editing, where people understand more of what an editor does and appreciates the results more. Editing is basically a final rewrite of the script, she says. “You’re the last line of defense; sometimes you need to guide the story back to its original direction [if it veers off course].”


Karen Moltenbrey is a veteran writer/editor covering VFX and post production.

DP Chat: Catch-22’s Martin Ruhe, ASC

By Randi Altman

For the bibliophiles out there, you know Catch-22 as the 1961 book by Joseph Heller. Cinephiles might remember the 1970 film of the same name starring Alan Arkin. And for those who are familiar with the saying, but not its origins, a Catch-22 is essentially a no-win situation. The famous idiom comes from the book — specifically the main character, Captain John Yossarian, a World War II bombardier who finds himself needing to escape the war, but rules and regulations hold him back.

Martin Ruhe (right) on-set with George Clooney.

Now there is yet another Catch-22 to point to: Hulu’s miniseries, which stars Christopher Abbott, Kyle Chandler, Hugh Laurie and George Clooney. Clooney is also an executive producer, alongside Grant Heslov, Luke Davies, David Michôd, Richard Brown, Steve Golin and Ellen Kuras. The series was written by Davies and Michôd and directed by Clooney, Heslov and Kuras, who each directed two episodes. It was shot entirely in Italy.

We recently reached out to the show’s German-born DP, Martin Ruhe, ASC, to find out about his workflow on the series and how he became a cinematographer.

Tell us about Catch-22. How would you describe the look of the film that you and the directors wanted to achieve?
George was very clear — he wanted to push the look of the show toward something we don’t see very often these days in TV or films. He wanted to feel the heat of the Italian summer.

We also wanted to contrast the absurdity of what happens on the ground with the claustrophobic and panic of the aerial work. We ended up with a strong warm tone and a lot of natural light. And we move the camera as if we‘re always with our hero (Abbott). Very often we travel with him in fluent camera moves, and then we contrast that with shaky hand-held camera work in the air. It was good fun to be able to have such a range to work with.

Were you given examples of the look that was wanted?
We looked at newsreel footage from the period and at stills and benefitted from production designer David Gropman‘s research. Then I took stills when we did camera tests with our actors in costume. I worked on those on my computer until we got to a place we all liked.

Stefan Sonnenfeld at Company 3 did the grading for the show and loved it. He gave us a LUT that we used for our dailies. Later, when we did the final grade, we added film grain and refined our look to what it is now.

How early did you get involved in the production?
I spoke with George Clooney and Grant Heslov for the first time four months before we started to shoot. I had eight weeks of prep.

How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses for this project?
A lot of the scenes were happening in very small spaces. I did a lot of research on smaller cameras, and since we would have a lot of action scenes in those planes, I did not want to use any cameras with a rolling shutter.

I ended up using Arri Alexa Minis with Cooke S4 lenses and also some Flare cameras by IO industries, which could record 4K raw to Q7 Odyssey recorders. We mounted those little ones on the planes whenever they were flying for real. We also used it for the parachute jump.

This is a period piece. How did that affect your choices?
The main effect was the choice of light sources when we shot interiors and night scenes. I love fluorescents, and they existed in the period, but just not in those camps and not in the streets of Rome at night. We used a lot of practicals and smaller sources, which we spread out in the little streets of a small town where we shot, called Viterbo (standing in for Rome).

Another thing I learned was that in those camps at night, lights were blacked out. That meant we were stuck with moonlight and general ambience for night scenes, which we created with HMI sources — sometimes direct if we needed to cover big areas, like when the air base gets attacked at night in Episode 5.

Any challenging scenes that you are particularly proud of or found most challenging? 
In the end of Episode 5, Yossarian’s plane loses both engines in combat and goes down. We see YoYo and others escape the plane, while the pilot takes the plane over water and tries to land it. It’s a very dramatic scene.

We shot some exteriors of the real B25 Mitchell over Sardinia. We mounted camera systems in a DC3 and our second Mitchell to get the shots with the real planes. The destruction on the engines and the additional planes were added in post. The interiors of our actors in the plane were shot at Cinecitta Studios in Rome. We had a fuselage of a real B-25 on a gimbal. The studio was equipped with a 360-degree screen and a giant top light.

In the plane, we shot with a hand-held ARRI Alexa Mini camera. It was only the actors, myself and my focus puller inside. We never altered the physical space of the plane but instead embraced the claustrophobia. We see all of the crew members getting out — only the pilot stays on board. There was so little physical space for our actors since the fuselage was rigged to the gimbal, and then we also had to create the lighting for them to jump into within a couple of feet of space.

Then, when Yossarian leaves the plane, we actually put a small camera on a stuntman while another stuntman in Yossarian’s wardrobe did a real jump. We combined that with some plate shots from a helicopter (with a 3D plane in it) and some shots of our actor on a rig on the backlot of Cinecitta.

It all worked out. It was always our goal to shoot as many real elements as we could and leave the rest with post.

Stepping away from Catch-22. How did you become interested in cinematography?
I grew up in a small town in western Germany. No one in my family had anything to do with film. I loved movies and wanted to work on them as a director. After a little journey, I got an internship at a camera rental in London. It was then I saw for the first time what cinematographers do. I loved it and knew that was it. Then I studied in Berlin, became a focus puller for a couple of years and started working as a DP on music videos, then commercials and then, a little later, films.

What inspires you artistically?
Photography and movies. There is a lot of good work out there by a lot of talented DPs. I love to look at photographers I like as well as some documentary stills like the ones you see in the World Press Photo contest once a year. I love it when it is real. There are so many images around us every day, but if I don’t believe them (where they seem real to me), they are just annoying.

Looking back over the last few years, what new technology has changed the way you work?
Maybe LED lighting and maybe the high sensitivity of today’s digital cameras. You are so much more free in your choice of locations, days and, especially, night work because you can work with fewer lights.

What are some of your best practices or rules you try to follow on each job?
Keep it as simple as you can, and stay true to your vision.

Explain your ideal collaboration with the director when setting the look of a project.
I’m not sure there is just one way to go. After reading the script, you have an idea of what it can be, and then you start getting the information of the where and in what frame you will work.

Martin Ruhe behind the ARRI Alexa.

I love to spend time with my directors in prep — going to the locations, seeing them in different light, like mornings, noon or during night. Then I love to work with stills and sometimes also reference pictures to show what I think it can be and present a way we can get there. It’s always very important to leave some space for things to develop.

What’s your go-to gear — things you can’t live without?
I look for the right gear for each project. I like ARRI cameras, but I’ve also shot two movies with Panavision cameras.

I have shot movies in various countries, and the early ones didn’t have big budgets, so I tried to work with local crew and gear that was available. The thing I like about that is you get to know different ways of doing things, and also you might work with gear you would have never picked yourself. It keeps you flexible. When I start a project, I am trying to develop a feel for the story and the places it lives. Once I have that feel, I start into how and decide what tools I’ll use.

Photo Credit: Philippe Antonello


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

Amazon’s Sneaky Pete: DP Arthur Albert on the look of Season 3

By Karen Moltenbrey

Crime has a way of finding Pete Murphy, or should we say Marius Josipovic (Giovanni Ribisi). Marius is a con man who assumed his cellmate’s identity when he was paroled from prison. His plan was twofold: first, pretend to be the still-incarcerated Pete, from whom the family has been estranged for the past 20 years, and hide out on their farm in Connecticut. Second, con the family out of money so he can pay back a brutal mobster (Bryan Cranston, who also produces).

Arthur Albert

Marius’s plan, however, is flawed. The family is lovable, \ quirky and broke. Furthermore, they are in the bail bond business and one of his “cousins” is a police officer — not ideal for a criminal. Ultimately, Marius starts to really care for the family while also discovering that his cover is not that safe.

Similar to how Marius’ plans on Sneaky Pete have changed, so has the show’s production on the current and final Season 3, which is streaming on Amazon now. This season, the story shifts from New York to California, in tandem with the storylines. Blake Masters also took over as showrunner, and cinematographer Arthur Albert (ER, The Blacklist, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul) came on as director of photography, infusing his own aesthetic into the series.

“I asked Blake if he wanted me to maintain the look they had used previously, and he said he wanted to put his own stamp on it and raise the bar in every department. So, I had free rein to change the look,” notes Albert.

The initial look established for Sneaky Pete had a naturalistic feel, and the family’s bail office was lit with fluorescent lighting. Albert, in contrast, opted for a more cinematic look with portrait-style lighting. “It’s just an aesthetic choice,” he says. “The sets, designed by (Jonathan) Carlson, are absolutely brilliant, and I tried to keep them as rich and layered as possible.”

For Manhattan scenes, Masters wanted a mid-century, modern look. “I made New York moody and as interesting as I could — cooler, more contrasty,” says Albert. When the story shifts to Southern California, Masters asked for a bright, more vibrant look. “There’s a big location change. For this season, you want to feel that change. It’s a big decision for the whole family to pick up their operation and move it, so I wanted the overall look of the show to feel new and different.”

The edginess and feeling of danger, though, comes less from the lighting in this show and more from the camera movement. The use of Steadicam gives it a bit of a stalking feel, serving as a moving viewpoint.

When Albert first met with Masters, they discussed what they thought worked in previous episodes. They liked the ones that used handheld and close-up shots that were wide and close to the actor, but in the end they went with a more traditional approach used by Jon Avnet, who directed four of the 10 episodes this season.

Season 3 was primarily shot with two cameras (Albert’s son, Nick, served as second-unit DP and A-camera operator, and Jordan Keslow, B-camera/Steadicam operator). A fan of Red cameras — Albert used an early incarnation for the last six episodes of ER – he employed Red’s DSMC2 with the new Gemini 5K S35 sensor for Season 3. The Gemini leverages dual sensitivity modes to provide greater flexibility for a variety of shooting environments.

The DP also likes the way it renders skin tones without requiring diffusion. “The color is really true and good, and the dynamic range is great. It held for really bright window areas and really dark areas, both with amazing range,” he says. The interiors of the sets were filmed on a stage in Los Angeles, and the exteriors were shot on location afterward. With the Gemini’s two settings (standard mode for well-lit conditions and a low-light setting), “You can shoot a room where you can barely see anyone, and it looks fully lit, or if it’s a night exterior where you don’t have enough time, money or space to light it, or in a big set space where suddenly you want to shoot high speed and you need more light. You just flip a switch, and you’ve got it. It was very clean with no noise.”

This capability came in handy for a shoot in Central Park at night. The area was heavily restricted in terms of using lights. Albert used the 3200 ISO setting and the entire skyline of 59th Street was visible — the clouds and how they reflected the light of the buildings, the detail of the night sky, the silhouettes of the buildings. In another similar situation, he used the low-light setting of the camera for a night sequence filmed in Grand Central Terminal. “It looked great, warm and beautiful; there is no way we could have lit that vast space at night to accommodate a standard ISO,” says Albert.

As far as lenses on Sneaky Pete, they used the Angenieux short zooms because they are lightweight and compact, can be put on a Steadicam and are easy to hold. “And I like the way they look,” Albert says. He also used the new Sigma prime lenses, especially when an extreme wide angle was needed, and was impressed with their sharpness and lack of distortion.

Throughout filming, the cinematographer relied on Red’s IPP2 (image processing pipeline) in-camera, which resulted in a more effective post process, as it is designed for an HDR workflow, like Sneaky Pete — which is required by Amazon.

The color grade for the series was done at Level 3 Post by Scott Ostrowsky, who had also handled all the previous seasons of Sneaky Pete and with whom Albert had worked with on The Night Shift and other projects. “He shoots a very cinematic look and negative. I know his style and was able to give him that look before he came into the suite. And when we did the reviews together, it was smooth and fast,” Ostrowsky says. “At times Sneaky Pete has a very moody look, and at times it has a very open look, depending on the environment we were shooting in. Some of the dramatic scenes are moody and low-light. Imagine an old film noir movie, only with color. It’s that kind of feel, where you can see through the shadows. It’s kind of inky and adds suspense and anticipation.”

Ostrowsky worked with the camera’s original negative — “we never created a separate stream,” he notes. “It was always from the camera neg, unless we had to send a shot out for a visual effects treatment.”

Sneaky Pete was shot in 5K, from which a 3840×2160 UHD image was extracted, and that is what Ostrowsky color graded. “So, if I needed to use some kind of window or key, it was all there for me,” he says. Arthur or Nick Albert would then watch the second pass with Ostrowsky, who would make any further changes, and then the producers would watch it, adding their notes. Ostrowsky worked used the Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve.

“I want to make the color work for the show. I don’t want the color to distract from the show. The color should tell the story and help the story,” adds Ostrowsky.

While not every change has been for the best for Pete himself since Season 1, the production changes on Sneaky Pete’s last season appear to be working just fine.


Karen Moltenbrey is a veteran VFX and post writer.

Whiskey Cavalier DPs weigh in on the show’s look, DITs

While ABC recently cancelled freshman series Whiskey Cavalier, their on-set workflow is an interesting story to tell. The will-they-won’t-they drama featured FBI agent Will Chase (Scott Foley) and CIA operative Frankie Trowbridge (Lauren Cohan) — his codename is Whiskey Cavalier and hers is Fiery Tribune. The two lead an inter-agency team of spies who travel all over the world, periodically saving the world and each other, all while navigating friendship, romance and office politics.

David “Moxy” Moxness

Like many episodic television shows, Whiskey Cavalier used two cinematographers who alternated episodes so that the directors could work side-by-side with a cinematographer while prepping. David “Moxy” Moxness, CSC, ASC, shot the pilot. Moxness had previously worked on shows like Lethal Weapon, Fringe and Smallville and was just finishing another show when Warner Bros. sent him the pilot script.

“I liked it and took a meeting with director Peter Atencio,” explains Moxness. “We had a great meeting and seemed to be on the same page creatively. For me, it’s so much about collaborating on good shows with great people. Whiskey gave me that feeling.” Sid Sidell, ASC, a friend and colleague of Moxness’, was brought on as the second DP.

While Whiskey Cavalier’s plot has its two main characters traveling all over the world, principal photography took place in Prague. Neither cinematographer had worked there previously, although Moxness had passed through on vacation years before. While prepping and shooting the pilot, Moxness developed the look of the show with director Atencio. “Peter and I had the idea of using the color red when our lead character Will Chase was conflicted emotionally to trigger an emotional response for him,” he explains. “This was a combo platter of set dressing, costumes and lighting. We were very precise about not having the color red in frame other than these times. Also, when the team was on a mission, we kept to a cooler palette while their home base, New York, used warmer tones.”

This didn’t always prove to be straightforward. “You still have to adjust to location surroundings — when scouting for the pilot, I realized Prague still had mostly sodium vapor streetlights, which are not often seen in America anymore,” explains Moxness. “This color was completely opposite to what Peter and I had discussed regarding our nighttime palette, and we had a big car chase over a few nights and in different areas. I knew time and resources would in no way allow us to change or adjust this, and that I would have to work backwards from the existing tones. Peter agreed and we reworked that into our game. For our flashbacks, I shot 35mm 4-perf film with an ARRI IIC hand-cranked camera and Kowa lenses. That was fun! We continued all of these techniques and looks during the series.”

DITs
Mission, a UK-based DIT/digital services provider serving Europe, was brought on to work beside the cinematographers. Mission has an ever-expanding roster of DITs and digital dailies lab operators and works with cinematographers from preproduction onward, safeguarding their color decisions as a project moves from production into post.

Moxness and Sidell hadn’t worked with Mission before, but a colleague of Moxness’ had spoken to him about the experience of working with Mission on a project the year before. This intrigued Moxness, so he was waiting for a chance to work with them.

“When Whiskey chose to shoot in Prague I immediately reached out to Mission’s managing director, Mark Purvis,” explains Moxness. “Mark was enthusiastic about setting us up on Whiskey. After a few conversations to get to know each other, Mark suggested DIT Nick Everett. Nick couldn’t have been a better match for me and our show.”

Interestingly, Sidell had often worked without a DIT before his time on Whiskey Cavalier. He says, “My thoughts on the DP/DIT relationship changed drastically on Whiskey Cavalier. By choice, before Whiskey, I did the majority of my work without a DIT. The opportunity to work alongside Nick Everett and his Mission system changed my view of the creative possibilities of working with a DIT.”

Gear
Whiskey Cavalier was shot with the ARRI Alexa Mini and primarily ARRI Master Prime lenses with a few Angenieux zooms. Both Moxness and Sidell had worked with the Mini numerous times before, finding it ideal for episodic television. The post workflow was simple. On set, Everett used Pomfort’s LiveGrade to set the look desired by the cinematographers. Final color was done at Picture Shop in Los Angeles by senior colorist George Manno.

Moxy (behind camera) and director/EP Peter Atencio (to his right) on the Prague set.

“There are a few inherent factors shooting episodic television that can, and often do, handcuff the DP with regards to maintaining their intended look,” says Moxness. “The shooting pace is very fast, and it is not uncommon for editorial, final color and sometimes even dailies to happen far away from the shooting location. Working with a properly trained and knowledgeable DIT allows the DP to create a desired look and get it into and down the post pipeline to maintain that look. Without a proper solid roadmap, others start to input their subjective vision, which likely doesn’t match that of the DP. When shooting, I feel a strong responsibility to put my thumbprint on the work as I was hired to do. If not, then why was I chosen over others?”

Since successfully working on Whiskey Cavalier in Prague, Mission has set up a local office in Prague, led by Mirek Sochor and dedicated to Mission’s expansion into Central Europe.

And Moxness will be heading back to Prague to shoot Amazon’s The Wheel of Time.

 

Showrunner and EP Peter Gould on AMC’s Better Call Saul

By Iain Blair

Having a legal issue? Thinking of calling someone who has a questionable relationship with the rule of law? Jimmy McGill? Saul Goodman? Or, maybe, Gene, the lonely Cinnabon store manager? The slippery, shady, shape-shifting character — played beautifully by multiple Emmy-nominee Bob Odenkirk — is at the heart of Better Call Saul, the spin-off prequel to AMC’s Breaking Bad. But if you want to know what’s going on under the hood of the show, you better call writer/showrunner Peter Gould.

L-R: Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan

A Sony Pictures Television and AMC Studios co-production, Better Call Saul is executive produced by co-creators Gould and Vince Gilligan, as well as Mark Johnson (Breaking Bad, Diner, Rain Man), Melissa Bernstein (Breaking Bad, Rectify, Halt and Catch Fire) and Breaking Bad alums Thomas Schnauz and Gennifer Hutchison. The show recently won a Peabody Award in the Entertainment category and has racked up wins and nominations from pretty much every organization that hands them out, including Primetime Emmys, Golden Globes, SAG, AFI and the WGA.

For those of you who are champing at the bit for a new season this summer, you must be patient. The new season isn’t set to premiere until 2020, so maybe binge watch some Saul or even Breaking Bad to get you through!

I recently spoke with Gould about making the show and the latest on the Breaking Bad movie.

Do you enjoy being a showrunner?
I love it. In my opinion it’s the greatest job in show business. It’s a privilege to get to work with all the people on this, and it’s a fantastic situation. If the show falls short I only have myself to blame, as the cast and crew are all extraordinary.

What are the big challenges of showrunning Better Call Saul?
The number one challenge is always figuring out the story and how to tell the story in the most interesting and engaging way… while being as true as possible to the characters we’ve created, and then how to create the most cinematic experience that we can. By that, I mean using every tool we have available in production and post.

How far along are you Season 5?
Today we’re shooting the last day of Episode 3. Episode 4 starts next week, and we’re breaking the last episode, which is number 10.  We’re also in the middle of cutting the first three episodes, so there’s a lot going on.

What can fans expect? Will we see more of Gene Takovic, the man Jimmy McGill becomes after he becomes Saul Goodman?
I think it’s safe to say that we’re very interested in Gene. There’s a lot more to be said about him, and fans can expect that. One of the fun things about Gene is that his scenes are in black-and-white, so it gives us a very different space to play in visually.

Why such a long wait from season four until five airs next year?
There’s a lot of moving parts, and we do our best each season to craft the best show we can. So the time is actually spent more in the writing than in the production or post, which are more predictable in terms of schedules. Then there’s the matter of scheduling with the network and other outlets. But I think it’s about the same, month to month. It takes us about 14 months to do a season from start to finish; that seems to be how it works on this. I’m not proud of that, as there are a lot of other TV shows that make a lot more episodes in a lot less time, but we can’t seem to do it much faster and keep up the high quality we all aim for.

Are you still shooting in Albuquerque?
Absolutely. That setting and all the locations are a very important part of the show.

Where do you post, and do you like the post process?
I love working on all the post, and I work closely with our post EP Diane Mercer and the people at our post facility, Keep Me Posted, which is our partner and part of Fotokem in Burbank. We do the audio mix at Wildtracks in Hollywood. Phillip Palmer does our production sound mixing, and Kevin Valentine and Larry Benjamin do all our re-recording mixing. They’re just the best there is.

Talk about editing. You have several editors, I assume because of the time factor. How does that work?
Our editors — Skip Macdonald and Chris McCaleb — cut the show here at our LA offices, where we also have our writers’ room. So at the start of a season, it’s very quiet because nothing much is happening there, but once production starts, every part of our offices are very busy. Then once the writers go home, all the post comes in and it’s really bustling.

What are the big editing challenges?
We have a very big cast and a lot of moving pieces in each episode. Plus there are a lot of time jumps, so we alternate with the editors. So this year Skip is on the odds and Chris is on the evens. They do their cuts and then the directors come in to do their cut. As they’re so heavily booked these days, some of them end up giving notes remotely, and we use Pix to distribute our cuts and dailies.

One of the eccentricities of the way this show’s evolved — and it’s really based on the way Vince Gilligan ran Breaking Bad, and where I learned everything I know about showrunning — is that we don’t really do a producer’s cut until fairly late in the process. There are cuts of pretty much every episode before we close production, but we don’t fully address post until after production has closed, especially on a season like number three.

When I direct the season finale, that creates a big hole in the production schedule, and as soon as I get back we start working on the producer’s cut. Generally, I’ll give notes on the director’s cut and editor’s cut, and the editors will execute those on their own. Then I’ll end up spending about a week with the editor on each episode. Usually, the writer and maybe another producer will sit in too. And often an EP like Tom Schnauz will sit in as he has a great eye for editing, and we’ll do the producer’s cut together in that week.

You mention directing a few of the shows. Do you like directing?
I do, but I find it very stressful. I haven’t done it enough of it to lower my stress level, but I find it very creative. I think it’s very useful for the show to have a showrunner come and direct and episode now and again, as it keeps my humility level going as directing is a hard battle. It’s wonderful to be able to work with the cast and crew in such a hands-on way.

Peter Gould (center) on set

I’ve always loved every aspect of filmmaking, and I’m fascinated by it all — from the chip sensors we use to the dollies, lights and so on. I have such respect for the craft and artistry of everyone making the show, and what I’ve learned about directing is that success or failure is about the situation you’re in as much as it is about your own talent. This is a great situation.

This show has a great score, and great sound design. Where do you mix and talk about the importance of sound and music.
Nick Forshager is our sound supervisor over at Wildtracks. I’m pretty involved in all the sound, but we do things a bit different from most shows. For a start, we use almost no temp music on the cuts, for various reasons. One, it can be a bit of a crutch, and second, you get used to it, so anything new then sounds strange. We’ve trained ourselves to cut without it, and our composer Dave Porter is brilliant at spotting where music can be useful and where it’s not necessary. So we spend time spotting each episode and talk a lot about the music and sound, and I believe sound and music are the way to get to an audience’s emotion by bypassing the logical brain.

You can really enhance the drama and clue-in the audience on how to read a scene through sound design and ambient shifts. I can’t tell you how often we’ve had a scene that sort of played okay, but which just came alive when we found the right sound. There’s a great example of that in a scene at the end of Season 1 where Jimmy’s running the bingo game, and he has this nervous breakdown. We kept making the speakers worse and worse, and added some delay and we had the pops in the mic when he got too close — and it went from being a really interesting scene to one that was funnier, more public and more psychological. So we put in so much detail and it really pays off.

Where do you do the grading, and who’s the colorist?
It’s all done at Keep Me Posted and our colorist is Ted Brady. You asked earlier why it all takes so long, and one big reason is that I’m at every producer’s color session. Our DP Marshall Adams is usually there too, and we’ll go through the whole show together. It takes about a day to do one episode and make sure we’re happy with the look.

It definitely has a different look from Breaking Bad, and even from season to season.
You’re right. That was shot on film, and it was a very different process in post. Now we’re shooting digitally, there’s almost too many possibilities. We also switched cameras this season, from Reds to an ARRI LF, and it has a different look from the Red. And we began shooting night exteriors on Season Three with the Panasonic VariCam, which gave us a very interesting look — neither filmic nor digital. The other thing is that as the characters evolve and change, it just made sense to change the look too.

How long do you see the show running?
Great question! This is a show with a beginning, middle and end, and I can say we’re closer to the end than the beginning. I just hope we can stick the ending the way Vince stuck it on Breaking Bad.

What’s the latest on the Breaking Bad movie?
You tell me! Vince knows.


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.

Amazon’s Good Omens: VFX supervisor Jean-Claude Deguara

By Randi Altman

Good versus evil. It’s a story that’s been told time and time again, but Amazon’s Good Omens turns that trope on its head a bit. With Armageddon approaching, two unlikely heroes and centuries-long frenemies— an angel (Michael Sheen) and demon (David Tennant) — team up to try to fight off the end of the world. Think buddy movie, but with the fate of the world at stake.

In addition to Tennant and Sheen, the Good Omens cast is enviable — featuring Jon Hamm, Michael McKean, Benedict Cumberbatch and Nick Offerman, just to name a few. The series is based on the 1990 book by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

Jean-Claude Degaura

As you can imagine, this six-part end-of-days story features a variety of visual effects, from creatures to environments to particle effects and fire. London’s Milk was called on to provide 650 visual effects shots, and its co-founder Jean-Claude Deguara supervised all.

He was also able to talk directly with Gaiman, which he says was a huge help. “Having access to Neil Gaiman as the author of Good Omens was just brilliant, as it meant we were able to ask detailed questions to get a more detailed brief when creating the VFX and receive such insightful creative feedback on our work. There was never a question that couldn’t be answered. You don’t often get that level of detail when you’re developing the VFX.”

Let’s find out more about Deguara’s process and the shots in the show as he walks us through his collaboration and creating some very distinctive characters.

Can you talk about how early you got involved on Good Omens?
We were involved right at the beginning, pre-script. It’s always the best scenario for VFX to be involved at the start, to maximize planning time. We spent time with director Douglas Mackinnon, breaking down all six scripts to plan the VFX methodology — working out and refining how to best use VFX to support the storytelling. In fact, we stuck to most of what we envisioned and we continued to work closely with him throughout the project.

How did getting involved when you did help the process?
With the sheer volume and variety of work — 650 shots, a five-month post production turnaround and a crew of 60 — the planning and development time in preproduction was essential. The incredibly wide range of work spanned multiple creatures, environments and effects work.

Having constant access to Neil as author and showrunner was brilliant as we could ask for clarification and more details from him directly when creating the VFX and receive immediate creative feedback. And it was invaluable to have Douglas working with us to translate Neil’s vision in words onto the screen and plan out what was workable. It also meant I was able to show them concepts the team were developing back in the studio while we were on set in South Africa. It was a very collaborative process.

It was important to have strong crew across all VFX disciplines as they worked together on multiple sequences at the same time. So you’re starting in tracking on one, in effects on another and compositing and finishing everything off on another. It was a big logistical challenge, but certainly the kind that we relish and are well versed in at Milk.

Did you do previs? If so, how did that help and what did you use?
We only used previs to work out how to technically achieve certain shots or to sell an idea to Douglas and Neil. It was generally very simple, using gray scale animation with basic geometry. We used it to do a quick layout of how to rescale the dog to be a bigger hellhound, for example.

You were on set supervising… can you talk about how that helped?
It was a fast-moving production with multiple locations in the UK over about six months, followed by three months in South Africa. It was crucial for the volume and variety of VFX work required on Good Omens that I was across all the planning and execution of filming for our shots.

Being on set allowed me to help solve various problems as we went along. I could also show Neil and Douglas various concepts that were being developed back in the studio, so that we could move forward more quickly with creative development of the key sequences, particularly the challenging ones such as Satan and the Bentley.

What were the crucial things to ensure during the shoot?
Making sure all the preparation was done meticulously for each shot — given the large volume and variety of the environments and sets. I worked very closely with Douglas on the shoot so we could have discussions to problem-solve where needed and find creative solutions.

Can you point to an example?
We had multiple options for shots involving the Bentley, so our advance planning and discussions with Douglas involved pulling out all the car sequences in the series scripts and creating a “mini script” specifically for the Bentley. This enabled us to plan which assets (the real car, the art department’s interior car shell or the CG car) were required and when.

You provided 650 VFX shots. Can you describe the types of effects?
We created everything from creatures (Satan exploding up out of the ground; a kraken; the hellhound; a demon and a snake) to environments (heaven – a penthouse with views of major world landmarks, a busy Soho street); feathered wings for Michael Sheen’s angel Aziraphale and David Tennant’s demon Crowley, and a CG Bentley in which Tennant’s Crowley hurtles around London.

We also had a large effects team working on a whole range of effects over the six episodes — from setting the M25 and the Bentley on fire to a flaming sword to a call center filled with maggots to a sequence in which Crowley (Tennant) travels through the internet at high speed.

Despite the fantasy nature of the subject matter, it was important to Gaiman that the CG elements did not stand out too much. We needed to ensure the worlds and characters were always kept grounded in reality. A good example is how we approached heaven and hell. These key locations are essentially based around an office block. Nothing too fantastical, but they are, as you would expect, completely different and deliberately so.

Hell is the basement, which was shot in a disused abattoir in South Africa, whilst heaven is a full CG environment located in the penthouse with a panoramic view over a cityscape featuring landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, The Shard and the Pyramids.

You created many CG creatures. Can you talk about the challenges of that and how you accomplished them?
Many of the main VFX features, such as Satan (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), appear only once in the six-part series as the story moves swiftly toward the apocalypse. So we had to strike a careful balance between delivering impact yet ensuring they were immediately recognizable and grounded in reality. Given our fast five-month post- turnaround, we had our key teams working concurrently on creatures such as a kraken; the hellhound; a small, portly demon called Usher who meets his demise in a bath of holy water; and the infamous snake in the Garden of Eden.

We have incorporated Ziva VFX into our pipeline, which ensured our rigging and modeling teams maximized the development and build phases in the timeframe. For example, the muscle, fat and skin simulations are all solved on the renderfarm; the animators can publish a scene and then review the creature effects in dailies the next day.

We use our proprietary software CreatureTools for rigging all our creatures. It is a modular rigging package, which allows us to very quickly build animation rigs for previs or blocking and we build our deformation muscle and fat rigs in Ziva VFX. It means the animators can start work quickly and there is a lot of consistency between the rigs.

Can you talk about the kraken?
The kraken pays homage to Ray Harryhausen and his work on Clash of the Titans. Our team worked to create the immense scale of the kraken and take water simulations to the next level. The top half of the kraken body comes up out of the water and we used a complex ocean/water simulation system that was originally developed for our ocean work on the feature film Adrift.

Can you dig in a bit more about Satan?
Near the climax of Good Omens, Aziraphale, Crowley and Adam witness the arrival of Satan. In the early development phase, we were briefed to highlight Satan’s enormous size (about 400 feet) without making him too comical. He needed to have instant impact given that he appears on screen for just this one long sequence and we don’t see him again.

Our first concept was pretty scary, but Neil wanted him simpler and more immediately recognizable. Our concept artist created a horned crown, which along with his large, muscled, red body delivered the look Neil had envisioned.

We built the basic model, and when Cumberbatch was cast, the modeling team introduced some of his facial characteristics into Satan’s FACS-based blend shape set. Video reference of the actor’s voice performance, captured on a camera phone, helped inform the final keyframe animation. The final Satan was a full Ziva VFX build, complete with skeleton, muscles, fat and skin. The team set up the muscle scene and fat scene in a path to an Alembic cache of the skeleton so that they ended up with a blended mesh of Satan with all the muscle detail on it.

We then did another skin pass on the face to add extra wrinkles and loosen things up. A key challenge for our animation team — lead by Joe Tarrant — lay in animating a creature of the immense scale of Satan. They needed to ensure the balance and timing of his movements felt absolutely realistic.

Our effects team — lead by James Reid — layered multiple effects simulations to shatter the airfield tarmac and generate clouds of smoke and dust, optimizing setups so that only those particles visible on camera were simulated. The challenge was maintaining a focus on the enormous size and impact of Satan while still showing the explosion of the concrete, smoke and rubble as he emerges.

Extrapolating from live-action plates shot at an airbase, the VFX team built a CG environment and inserted live action of the performers into otherwise fully digital shots of the gigantic red-skinned devil bursting out of the ground.

And the hellhound?
Beelzebub (Anna Maxwell Martin) sends the antichrist (a boy named Adam) a giant hellhound. By giving the giant beast a scary name, Adam will set Armageddon in motion. In reality, Adam really just wants a loveable pet and transforms the hellhound into a miniature hound called, simply, Dog.

A Great Dane performed as the hellhound, photographed in a forest location while a grip kept pace with a small square of bluescreen. The Milk team tracked the live action and performed a digital head and neck replacement. Sam Lucas modeled the head in Autodesk Maya, matching the real dog’s anatomy before stretching its features into grotesquery. A final round of sculpting followed in Pixologic ZBrush, with artists refining 40-odd blend shapes for facial expression.

Once our rigging team got the first iteration of the blend shapes, they passed the asset off to animation for feedback. They then added an extra level of tweaking around the lips. In the creature effects phase, they used Ziva VFX to add soft body jiggle around the bottom of the lips and jowls.

What about creating the demon Usher?
One of our favorite characters was the small, rotund, quirky demon creature called Usher. He is a fully rigged CG character. Our team took a fully concepted image and adapted it to the performance and physicality of the actor. To get the weight of Usher’s rotund body, the rigging team — lead by Neil Roche — used Ziva VFX to run a soft body simulation on the fatty parts of the creature, which gave him a realistic jiggle. They then added a skin simulation using Ziva’s cloth solver to give an extra layer of wrinkling across Usher’s skin. Finally they used nCloth in Maya to simulate his sash and medals.

Was one more challenging/rewarding than the others?
Satan, because of his huge scale and the integrated effects.

Out of all of the effects, can you talk about your favorite?
The CG Bentley without a doubt! The digital Bentley featured in scenes showing the car tearing around London and the countryside at 90 miles per hour. Ultimately, Crowley drives through hell fire on the M25, it catches fire and burns continuously as he heads toward the site of Armageddon. The production located a real Bentley 3.5 Derby Coupe Thrupp & Maberly 1934, which we photo scanned and modeled in intricate detail. We introduced subtle imperfections to the body panels, ensuring the CG Bentley had the same handcrafted appearance as the real thing and would hold up in full-screen shots, including continuous transitions from the street through a window to the actors in an interior replica car.

In order to get the high speed required, we shot plates on location from multiple cameras, including on a motorbike to achieve the high-speed bursts. Later, production filled the car with smoke and our effects team added CG fire and burning textures to the exterior of our CG car, which intensified as he continued his journey.

You’ve talked about the tight post turnaround? How did you show the client shots for approval?
Given the volume and wide range of work required, we were working on a range of sequences concurrently to maximize the short post window — and align our teams when they were working on similar types of shot.

We had constant access to Neil and Douglas throughout the post period, which was crucial for approvals and feedback as we developed key assets and delivered key sequences. Neil and Douglas would visit Milk regularly for reviews toward delivery of the project.

What tools did you use for the VFX?
Amazon (AWS) for cloud rendering, Ziva for creature rigging, Maya, Nuke, Houdini for effects and Arnold for rendering.

What haven’t I asked that is important to touch on?
Our work on Soho, in which Michael Sheen’s Aziraphale bookshop is situated. Production designer Michael Ralph created a set based on Soho’s Berwick Street, comprising a two-block street exterior constructed up to the top of the first story, with the complete bookshop — inside and out — standing on the corner.

Four 20-x-20-foot mobile greenscreens helped our environment team complete the upper levels of the buildings and extend the road into the far distance. We photo scanned both the set and the original Berwick Street location, combining the reference to build digital assets capturing the district’s unique flavor for scenes during both day and nighttime.


Before and After: Soho

Mackinnon wanted crowds of people moving around constantly, so on shooting days crowds of extras thronged the main section of street and a steady stream of vehicles turned in from a junction part way down. Areas outside this central zone remained empty, enabling us to drop in digital people and traffic without having to do takeovers from live-action performers and cars. Milk had a 1,000-frame cycle of cars and people that it dropped into every scene. We kept the real cars always pulling in round the corner and devised it so there was always a bit of gridlock going on at the back.

And finally, we relished the opportunity to bring to life Neil Gaiman and Douglas Mackinnon’s awesome apocalyptic vision for Good Omens. It’s not often you get to create VFX in a comedy context. For example, the stuff inside the antichrist’s head: whatever he thinks of becomes reality. However, for a 12-year-old child, this means reality is rather offbeat.


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

The editing and tech behind Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

This interactive film’s editor talks challenges as well as how Netflix’s Branch Manager tech made it all possible.

By Karen Moltenbrey

In any film, or web/television series for that matter, the final presentation is the culmination of many choices. The director’s, the scriptwriter’s, the editor’s… just about everyone’s but the viewers. However, Netflix changed that with Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, a special interactive TV movie during which viewers are prompted to make selections that affect the decision-making and, ultimately, determine the fate of the main character: a young video game programmer.

Alas, while the viewer is tasked with making certain decisions at various intervals in the movie, that certainly did not mean the workload was any less for those on the project. In fact, they had to devise a plethora of paths that could be selected — so many, in fact, that a new tool, called Branch Manager, was devised and integrated into the workflow to maintain order and elegance to what could easily have become a tangled web on so many fronts.

Black Mirror, a British science-fiction series of stand-alone stories, mostly focuses on the consequences of new technologies. It was created by Charlie Brooker, who serves as showrunner along with Annabel Jones. The very first episode debuted in late 2011, and after four “series,” the pair introduced the interactive movie Black Mirror: Bandersnatch on December 28, 2018, in which reality and fantasy merge together for programmer Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) as he adapts a choose-your-own-adventure type novel into a video game. Soon Butler’s life begins to resemble that of the tragic author, and he begins to break down mentally, slipping further down the rabbit hole as he tries to make a seemingly impossible release date for the game.

Within this storyline, viewers are tasked with making certain decisions, each leading them along various paths in the narrative. In addition, there are a number of possible story endings. Viewers have 10 seconds to make decisions or one is made for them. But, once a play-through ends, viewers can go back and make a different choice. According to Netflix, the average viewing time for the movie is 90 minutes.

Tony Kearns

With 150 minutes of unique footage divided into 250 segments, just about every aspect of production was impacted in some way, perhaps none more so than editing. And that task was given to Tony Kearns, a veteran editor who calls Bandersnatch “the biggest challenge of my editing career” thus far. In terms of production, Kearns estimates the shoot to have been two to three weeks longer than a regular Black Mirror episode, and the edit took five to seven weeks longer than a show of similar duration, lasting 17 weeks.

“When we started working on Bandersnatch, we realized we were doing something that none of us had done before by making an interactive movie — especially one of such complexity,” says Kearns. “I think everyone who had a major role in the production grasped quite early on the need to be very organized and to get our heads around the structure of the script and the segments, as well as the implications of a nonlinear storytelling based on viewers’ choices at every choice point.”

Then, as the group worked through the movie and began getting more footage in the can, “it was obviously clear we had to work out a way of keeping track of things and getting the right results from the edit and how we were constructing it,” he continues. “Having the Branch Manager software [developed in-house by Netflix] enabled us to watch the movie with the various choices, and while making them, seeing the implications for editing — particularly at the end of a segment and when starting another. That’s because you weren’t moving to just one thing; you were going to two things, and both had to work. Some of the segments had six variations, so you had to make sure they all worked. It was a novel experience and very intense. We had to be on our toes all the time.”

Bandersnatch is not Netflix’s first interactive show. In fact, the company has experimented with more simplified interactive, or “branching narrative,” children’s shows since 2017. However, Bandersnatch marked the first time it has done so for live action and for an adult audience — and to resounding success based on audience reaction. On the heels of that success, Netflix has followed up with the live-action interactive show You vs. Wild, putting viewers into the tracks of adventurer Bear Grylls as they make decisions for him while he tries to survive an adventure in the wilderness.

For Kearns, though, Bandersnatch was his first interactive “adventure.” (He is currently editing the Netflix drama The End of the F***ing World, Season 2.) He found the process “very, very different from a linear experience.” Making things even more daunting was the level of interactive complexity that was introduced in Bandersnatch. “We had no idea how it was going to be received. Would people become too frustrated, or would the emotional aspects of the story come through within all the choices?”

One of the biggest considerations was in terms of structure — making sure there weren’t too many recaps and that they balanced out with the story’s complexity, lest viewers give up on the movie. Another big focus was ensuring that the performances within this structure maintained the empathy, or humanity, that would keep viewers engaged and invested in the characters and story.

As a result, the nonlinear process fostered closer communication among the group, with script supervisor Marilyn Kirby and assistant director Jay Author invaluable on set, and a particularly crowded editing room. “That prevented us from going mad while trying to get our heads around things,” says Kearns.

While the editor and director always work closely on projects, at times director David Slade, executive producers Brooker and Jones, producer Russell McLean, assistant editor John Weeks and VFX editor Will Howden were all working together in the cutting room. “Everyone was contributing. It wasn’t that it made things difficult; it was essential and made things more interesting and exciting,” says Kearns.

New Workflow
As Kearns points out, a typical TV show, drama or film has a main cut and that’s it. Not so for Bandersnatch, which had segments that at times had upward of 14 cuts, all of which had to be tracked and organized.

The script was divided into eight sections, and each segment in those sections was assigned a four-character alphanumeric number, along with the corresponding variant. “The workflow was based on keeping track of the segments. We knew by the number which section of the script it belonged to,” Kearns explains. “The workflow was dependent on us keeping a record, spreadsheets. While editing, we had to know which was the latest version, or cut, because they were constantly being reworked. And the latest one went into Branch Manager to be viewed on our laptops. That was an important part of the workflow.”

Using Branch Manager, however, required some technical savvy, and helping the editing team navigate the software was assistant editor John Weeks, who just happened to be an experienced coder and worked his magic with the QuickTime files for each segment and ingested them into Branch Manager. “He was able to be so proactive and communicate with the engineers and developers at Netflix. He really took to this like a duck to water,” Kearns says. “I know it took up a lot of his time, but it ended up being essential for us in terms of making decisions for the edit and structure.”

Kearns would receive footage to a particular segment after each day of filming, do an assembly and then integrate it into the system. Then he would work on further edits as the segment progressed and as the structure was reworked and aspects re-aligned. “The numbering system for each segment was kind of the spine of the process and helped us keep track of what we were doing,” he adds. “You have to be prepared to pull things apart and reassemble them because the experience is different.”

For the movie, Kearns edited on Adobe Premiere, since it allowed him to open more than one sequence at a time. “It was essential to have more than one segment edit up at a time and switch between them just to see how [the segments] flowed,” he says. He also used Adobe Premiere for the VFX work.

Branch Manager
The big star in terms of software on the project, though, was Branch Manager, developed by Netflix, which enabled the editing team to play with various options, choice points and timing, to ensure that the viewer was presented with the correct next segment based on the selection he or she had made. “You have a viewer’s experience, rather than looking at it on the edit system,” Kearns says of using the software. “We could view the movie in an interactive way on our laptops. We could see how the segments were working with each other, which was very useful.”

Carla Engelbrecht

He explains: “We’d basically do a pass and watch it, make notes and adjust the edit accordingly, because sometimes you see things in isolation and think, ‘Oh, they’re working,’ and then using Branch Manager, we were able to see that, well, maybe they aren’t working so well. It was an essential platform. It made the process more fluid and creative, and easy to understand the structural and editorial aspects. We wouldn’t have been able to do this movie without it.”

According to Carla Engelbrecht, Netflix director of product innovation, her team met with Brooker and Jones in May 2017 and introduced them to the interactive storytelling technology, which, at the time, enabled Netflix to tell various interactive stories. A few months later, the pair returned with what would be the beginnings of Bandersnatch, “and we could see this was going to be a much more complex story than what we had previously done for our interactive titles for kids, which contained simple maps with just 15 or so choices, and each often led to maybe three different endings,” she says.

Not so with the plans for Bandersnatch. “The complexity of the stories Charlie [Brooker] wanted to tell, as well as the complexity of the stories adults can tackle in general, was partly what really drove us to create Branch Manager.”

Initially, the Bandersnatch scriptwriters began their process using Twine, an open-source interactive fiction engine, but it was easy to see that would not be sufficient for the planned complexity of Bandersnatch. This prompted Engelbrecht’s group to begin developing its own software. Moreover, production teams were developing their own mapping systems, often using spreadsheets for the interactive content. “We knew we could smooth this out and make the process easier for everyone by creating a common language so we could all be on the same page,” she explains.

As Engelbrecht notes, Branch Manager is a visualization tool that is used throughout the production process, from viewing an outline to creating a flowchart of the story structure, within which pieces of the outline are embedded as a script is formed. During the shoot, rough (or even fine) cuts are added to the software. “Then you can start watching it and experiencing all of the pieces, whether for continuity or choices.”

After a few months, the software was up and running and ready to be migrated over for use on the project. “That become the ongoing tool, as we used it during the rest of scriptwriting through the actual production and even into post production,” she says. “We were sort of beta-testing it on the fly [with Bandersnatch]. As we got script deliveries, we would also get notes on Branch Manager and on other features they wanted us to add.”

Engelbrecht points out that for some in production and post, the new workflow was seamless, involving “just more” — in essence, one big linear file. (She estimates that the final file ingested into the system is approximately five hours long due to the various options.) But for others, like the DP and actors, scenes had to be reshot with slightly different takes, and editing had to track and assemble those different options. “Throughout development and beyond, we had conversations and tried to be mindful of where problems could occur at the various stages. We wanted the software to be as minimally disruptive [to the production workflow] as possible, given what we were doing.”

While Netflix hasn’t specifically quantified the time-savings that Branch Manager brought to Bandersnatch, Engelbrecht notes that it was significant and allows for the telling of much more complex interactive stories.


Listen to Netflix and Black Mirror execs discuss how Branch Manager helped drive Bandersnatch’s production and innovation.

An Interactive Future
Kearns attributes the project’s success to the group carefully considering how it would approach the movie and managing to avoid major “teething” problems by making the right decisions along the way. He notes it was important, as well, to stay on top of what was going on at any given moment in terms of how a particular segments of story. “There were so many dimensions that, mentally, it was really taxing, but exciting as well,” he says. “I had to be able to recalibrate my editing brain to not think of the story overall, but rather from the point of view of individual segments, and keep them coherent.”

Looking to the future, Kearns expects an uptick in interactive projects but believes the key to their success — as evidenced with Bandersnatch — is to develop good scripts that suit the format, rather than trying to do it as a gimmick. He warns: “You really need people in important roles to be at the top of their game. It’s not for the faint of heart. And, you have to be prepared to make those tough decisions, which are made even tougher due to the nature of the interactive structure.”

He adds, “No matter how difficult your next job is, it is going to be so easy after Bandersnatch.”

Meanwhile, Engelbrecht’s team is working on improvements to Branch Manager. “On Bandersnatch, we were building the airplane as we were flying it,” she says. “We’re now moving into Version 2, better integrating the software with external tools to make the work even more seamless. We’re also looking to improve the onboarding experience to make the learning curve shorter, so it’s not like learning a new programming language. We want it to feel more drag-and-drop.”

For instance, the group has made Branch Manager compatible with Final Draft screenwriting software, enabling a script to be imported directly into Netflix’s tool. The team is still working on the interface. “We have a long wish list just pertaining to the visualization experience with the tools. And, we’re working on how to better integrate it on the other end, so when we ingest files into the system, the metadata flows from Branch Manager directly into our [production] system, whereas right now we still have to create a spreadsheet to negotiate part of the process.”

Thanks to Branch Manager, the team on Bandersnatch was able to negotiate a complex web of shifting directions. So, too, for the executives at Netflix, who are able to explore and more easily navigate new directions for content.


Karen Moltenbrey is a veteran VFX and post writer.

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. 

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.

Artifex provides VFX for Jordan Peele’s Weird City

Vancouver-based VFX house Artifex Studios was the primary visual effects vendor for Weird City, Oscar-winner Jordan Peele’s first foray into scripted OTT content. The dystopian sci-fi/comedy Weird City — from Peele and Charlie Sanders — premieres on YouTube Premium on  February 13. They have released a first trailer and it features a variety of Artifex’s visual effects work.

Artifex’s CG team created the trailer’s opening aerial shots of the futuristic city. Additionally, video/holographic screens, user interfaces, graphics, icons and other interactive surfaces that the characters interact with were tasked to Artifex.

Artifex’s team, led by VFX supervisor Rob Geddes, provided 250 visual effects shots in all, including Awkwafina’s and Yvette Nicole Brown’s outfit swapping (our main image), LeVar Burton’s tube traveling and a number of additional environment shots.

Artifex called on Autodesk Maya, V-ray, Foundry’s Nuke and Adobe Photoshop, along with a mix of Dell, HP, generic PC workstations and Dell and HP render nodes. They also used Side Effects Houdini for procedural generation of the “below the line” buildings in the opening city shot. Qumulo was called on for storage.

 

Behind the Title: Mr. Bronx sound designer/mixer Dave Wolfe

NAME: Dave Wolfe

COMPANY: NYC’s Mr. Bronx Audio Post

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
Mr. Bronx is an audio post and sound design studio that works on everything from TV and film to commercials and installations.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE AND WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
I am a partner and mixer. I do mostly sound design, dialogue editing and re-recording mixing. But I also have to manage the Bronx team, help create bids and get involved on the financial side.

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER YOUR TITLE?
They would be surprised how often I change out old toilet paper rolls.

WHAT TOOLS DO YOU USE IN YOUR WORK?
Avid Pro Tools, and a ton of our sound design is created with Native Instruments Komplete, specifically, Reaktor and Kontakt.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
I love helping to push the story further. Also, I like how fast the turnover is on sound jobs. We’re always getting to tackle new challenges — we come in toward the end of a project, do our job and move on.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE TIME OF THE DAY?
Lunchtime. We’re blessed with a full-time in-house chef named Gen Sato. He’s been here maybe six or seven years. He makes great cold soba noodles in the summer and David Chang’s Bo Ssam in the winter. David Chang has a well-known NYC restaurant called Momofuku’s Ssam Bar. Bo Ssam is a slow-roasted pork shoulder with a sugary crust, placed in a lettuce wrap with rice and a ginger scallion sauce.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
I was going to be a lawyer before I had this job. Now it’s hard to imagine what I would do without this gig, but if I had to choose, I would open a Jewish deli in Rhinebeck, New York. I could sell pastrami and lox.

HOW EARLY ON DID YOU KNOW THIS WOULD BE YOUR PATH?
I came to it late. I didn’t get my first apprenticeship until I was 25. A lot of kids tend to go to school for audio now.

I have a business degree, and I wanted to work for a record label. The first opening I found was in business affairs, so I started moving down that path. After the first two to three years there, however, I realized I was unhappy because I was creatively unfulfilled.

One day I went to MetLife Stadium for a football game and a girl asked what I would rather be doing instead. I said, “I’d rather be a mixer.” She said, “I know someone who is hiring.” Two weeks later, I had left my job and took on an apprenticeship at a mix house.

Random Acts of Flyness

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
We finished a TV show for HBO this summer that aired at the end of August called Random Acts of Flyness. It was a super creative challenge. It’s a variety show with live-action shorts, some sketch work, animated pieces and stop-motion animation. We would turn around an episode a week. Sound design, dialogue edit, ADR, music edit. Take the project from soup to nuts, from an audio perspective.

The creator, Terence Nance, had a very specific vision for the project. HBO said it’s, “A fluid, stream-of-conscious response to the contemporary American mediascape.” Originally, I didn’t know what that meant, but after a couple minutes of watching, it made perfect sense.

We’ve also completed the first season of the comedy show 2 Dope Queens on HBO, with the second season coming up. We also did another as-of-yet untitled project for Hulu, and there are many more exciting works to come.

2 Dope Queens

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
This would also be Random Acts of Flyness. We were so proud to help bring this to life by supplying some heavy sound design.We love to lend a hand in order to tell really necessary stories.

It was also big for our company. We hired a new mixer, Geoff Strasser, who led the charge for us on this project. We knew that he was going to be a great fit, personality and skill set-wise.

One of our other mixers, Eric Hoffman, mixed and sound designed Lemonade almost single-handedly. Speaking as someone who helped start the company, I couldn’t be prouder of the people I get to work with.

NAME PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
Like every other person who works in audio post, there’s something I heavily use called an iZotope RX Post Production Suite. It’s a set of audio restoration plugins, and you can’t live without it if you do our type of work.

When someone is making a movie, TV show or commercial, they tend to leave audio to the end. They don’t usually spend a lot of time on it in production — as the saying goes, “we’ll fix it in post,” and these tools are how we fix it.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
I recently bought a 1966 Ford pickup truck, so right now I’m meditatively polishing the hubcaps. That and playing my PS4.

Assistant Editor’s Bootcamp coming up with focus on reality TV

The Assistant Editor’s Bootcamp returns on Saturday and Sunday, January 19-20 with their third installment of Bootcamp training. This month’s courses are geared to those interested in editing for reality television. Assistant Editing for Reality Television will be taught by founders Noah Chamow (The Voice) and Conor Burke (America’s Got Talent).

Day 1 of the class will cover the essential skills needed to be a reality television assistant editor. Topics covered will include project organization, importing, linking to media and transcoding, exporting cuts and a demo on how to use ScriptSync. Day 2 will give an in-depth overview and practice session on multi-grouping that will cover how to create a day stack, syncing and multi-grouping footage in Avid as well as troubleshooting multi-groups.

Students can take one or both classes. Those who sign up for the online webinar will have access to class videos for 10 days after the presentation. Pricing for each day is $149.99 in person, $124.99 via webinar. Both take place from 10am-4pm in Burbank.

The Assistant Editors’ Bootcamp was founded on the premise of giving students practical real-world experience with classes taught by professional working editors in a collaborative low-stakes environment. “Students walk away with knowledge they can apply immediately in the edit bay to become more efficient and better at their craft overall,” says Chamow. “Having worked as assistant editors, Conor and I understand the day-to-day pitfalls and challenges that can slow down workflows. It’s our goal to give our peers better knowledge of their work to give them the confidence they need to take their careers to the next level.”

Behind the Title: FuseFX VFX supervisor Marshall Krasser

Over the years, this visual effects veteran has worked with both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, whose films helped inspire his career path.

NAME: Marshall Krasser

COMPANY: FuseFX 

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
FuseFX offers visual effects services for episodic television, feature films, commercials and VR productions. Founded in 2006, the company employs over 300 people across three studio locations in LA, NYC and Vancouver

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Visual Effects Supervisor

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
In general, a VFX supervisor is responsible for leading the creative team that brings the director’s vision to life. The role does vary from show to show depending on whether or not there is an on-set or studio-side VFX supervisor.

Here is a list of responsibilities across the board:
– Read and flag the required VFX shots in the script.
– Work with the producer and team to bid the VFX work.
– Attend the creative meetings and location scouts.
– Work with the studio creative team to determine what they want and what we need to achieve it.
– Be the on-set presence for VFX work — making sure the required data and information we need is shot, gathered and catalogued.
– Work with our in-house team to start developing assets and any pre-production concept art that will be needed.
– Once the VFX work is in post production, the VFX supervisor guides the team of in-house artists and technicians through the shot creation/completion phase, while working with the producer to keep the show within the budgets constraints.
– Keep the client happy!

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
That the job is much more than pointing at the computer screen and making pretty images. Team management is critical. Since you are working with very talented and creative people, it takes a special skill set and understanding. Having worked up through the VFX ranks, it helps you understand the mind set since you have been in their shoes.

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN WORKING IN VFX?
My first job was creating computer graphic images for speaker support presentations on a Genigraphics workstation in 1984. I then transitioned into feature film in 1994.

HOW HAS THE VFX INDUSTRY CHANGED IN THE TIME YOU’VE BEEN WORKING? WHAT’S BEEN GOOD, WHAT’S BEEN BAD?
It’s changed a lot. In the early days at ILM, we were breaking ground by being asked to create imagery that had never been seen before. This involved creating new tools and approaches that had not been previously possible.

Today, VFX has less of the “man behind the curtain” mystique and has become more mainstream and familiar to most. The tools and computer power have evolved so there is less of the “heavy lifting” that was required in the past. This is all good, but the “bad” part is the fact that “tricking” people’s eyes is more difficult these days.

DID A PARTICULAR FILM INSPIRE YOU ALONG THIS PATH IN ENTERTAINMENT?
A couple really focused my attention toward VFX. There is a whole generation that was enthralled with the first Star Wars movie. I will never forget the feeling I had upon first viewing it — it was magical.

The other was E.T., since it was more grounded on Earth and more plausible. I was blessed to be able to work directly with both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg [and the artisans who created the VFX for these films] during the course of my career.

DID YOU GO TO FILM SCHOOL?
I did not. At the time, there was virtually no opportunity to attend a film school, or any school, that taught VFX. I took the route that made the most sense for me at the time — art major. I am a classically trained artist who focused on graphic design and illustration, but I also took computer programming.

On a typical Saturday, I would spend the morning in the computer lab programming and the afternoon on the potter’s wheel throwing pots. Always found that ironic – primitive to modern in the same day!

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
Working with the team and bringing the creative to life.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
Numbers, no one told me there would be math! Re: bidding.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
Maybe a fishing or outdoor adventure guide. Something far away from computers and an office.

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
– the Vice movie
– the Waco miniseries
–  the Life Sentence TV series
– the Needle in a Timestack film
The 100 TV series

WHAT IS THE PROJECT/S THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
A few stand out, in no particular order. Pearl Harbor, Harry Potter, Galaxy Quest, Titanic, War of the Worlds and the last Indiana Jones movie.

WHAT TOOLS DO YOU USE DAY TO DAY?
I would have to say Nuke. I use it for shot and concept work when needed.

WHERE DO YOU FIND INSPIRATION NOW?
Everything around me. I am heavily into photography these days, and am always looking at putting a new spin on ordinary things and capturing the unique.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
Head into the great British Columbian outdoors for camping and other outdoor activities.

VFX Supervision: The Coens’ Western The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

By Randi Altman

The writing and directing duo of Joel and Ethan Coen have taken on the American Western with their new Netflix film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. This offering features six different vignettes that follow outlaws and settlers on the American frontier.

It stars the Coen brothers’ favorite Tim Blake Nelson as Buster, along with Liam Neeson, James Franco, Brenden Gleeson and many other familiar faces, even Tom Waits! It’s got dark humor and a ton of Coen quirkiness.

Alex Lemke (middle) on set with the Coen brothers.

For their visual effects needs, the filmmakers turned to New York-based East Side Effects co-founders and VFX supervisors Alexander Lemke and Michael Huber to help make things look authentic.

We reached out to visual effects supervisors Lemke and Huber to find out more about their process on the film and how they worked with these acclaimed filmmakers. East Side Effects created two-thirds of the visual effects in-house, while other houses, such as The Mill and Method, provided shots as well.

How many VFX shots were there in total?
Alexander Lemke: In the end, 704 shots had digital effects in them. This has to be a new record for the Coens. Joel at one point jokingly called it their “Marvel movie.”

How early did you get involved? Can you talk about that process?
Michael Huber: Alex and myself were first approached in January 2017 and had our first meetings shortly thereafter. We went through the script with the Coens and designed what we call a “VFX bible,” which outlined how we thought certain effects could be achieved. We then started collecting references from other films or real-life footage.

Did you do previs? 
Lemke: The Coens have been doing movies for so long in their own way that previs never really became an issue. For the Indian battles, we tried to interest them in the Ncam virtual camera system in combination with pre-generated assets, but that is not their way of doing a film.

The whole project was storyboarded by J. Todd Anderson, who has been their go-to storyboard guy since Raising Arizona. These storyboards gave a pretty good indication of what to expect, but there were still a lot of changes due to the nature of the project, such as weather and shooting with animals.

What were some of the challenges of the process and can you talk about creating the digital characters that were needed?
Huber: Every story had its own challenge, ranging from straightforward paintouts and continuity fixes to CG animals and complex head replacements using motion control technology. In order to keep the work as close to the directors as possible, we assembled a group of artists to serve as an extended in-house team, creating the majority of shots while also acting as a hub for external vendor work.

In addition, a color workflow using ACES and FilmLight Baselight was established to match VFX shots seamlessly to the dailies look established by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and senior colorist Peter Doyle. All VFX pulls were handled in-house.

Lemke: The Coens like to keep things in-camera as much as possible, so animals like the owl in “All Gold Canyon” or the dog in “Gal” were real. Very early on it was clear that some horse falls wouldn’t be possible as a practical stunt, so Joel and Ethan had a reel compiled with various digital horse stunts — including the “Battle of the Bastards” from Game of Thrones, which was done by Iloura (now Method). We liked that so much that we decided to just go for it and reach out to these guys, and we were thrilled when we got them on board for this. They did the “dog-hole!” horse falls in the “The Gal Who Got Rattled” segment, as well as the carriage horses in “Mortal Remains.”

Huber: For the deer in “All Gold Canyon,” the long-time plan was to shoot a real deer against bluescreen, but it became clear that we might not get the very specific actions Joel and Ethan wanted to see. They were constantly referring to the opening of Shane, which has this great shot of the titular character appearing through the antlers of a deer. So, it became more and more clear it would have to be a digital solution, and we were very happy to get The Mill in New York to work on that for us. Eventually, they would also handle all the other critters in the opening sequence.

Can you talk about Meal Ticket’s “artist” character, who is missing limbs?
Lemke: The “Wingless Thrush” — as he is referred to on a poster in the film — was a combined effort of the art department, special effects, costume design, VFX and, of course, actor Harry Melling’s incredible stamina. He was performing this poetry while standing in a hole in the ground with his hands behind his back, and went for it take after take, sometimes in the freezing cold.

Huber: It was clear that 98% of all shots would be painting out his arms and legs, so SFX supervisor Steve Cremin had to devise a way to cut holes into the set and his chair to make it appear he was resting on his stumps. Our costume designer, Mary Zophres, had the great idea of having him wear a regular shirt where the longs sleeves were just folded up, which helped with hiding his arms. He wasn’t wearing any blue garment, just black, which helped with getting any unnecessary color spill in the set.

Alex was on set to make sure we would shoot clean plates after each setup. Luckily, the Coen brothers’ approach to these shots was really focusing on Harry’s performance in long locked-off takes, so we didn’t have to deal with a lot of camera motion. We also helped Harry’s look by warping his shoulders closer to his body in some shots.

Was there a particular scene with this character that was most challenging or that you are most proud of?
Lemke: While most of the paintout shots were pretty straightforward — we just had to deal with the sheer amount of shots and edit changes — the most challenging parts are when Liam Neeson carries Harry in a backpack up the stairs in a brothel. He then puts him on the ground and eventually turns him away from the “action” that is about to happen.

We talked about different approaches early on. At some point, a rig was considered to help with him being carried up the stairs, but this would have meant an enormous amount of paint work, not to mention the setup time on a very tight shooting schedule. A CG head might have worked for the stairs, but for the long close up shots of Harry — both over a minute long, and only with very subtle facial expressions — it would have been cost prohibitive and maybe not successful in the end. So a head replacement seemed like the best solution, which comes with its own set of problems. In our case, shooting a head element of Harry that would match exactly what the dummy on Liam’s back and on the ground was doing in the production plates.

We came up with a very elaborate set up, where we would track the backpack and a dummy in the live-action photography in 3D Equalizer. We then reengineered this data into Kuper move files that would drive a motion control motion base combo.

Basically, Harry would sit on a computerized motion base that would do the turning motion so he could react to being pushed around. This happened while the motion control camera would take care of all the translations. This also meant our DP Bruno had to create animated lighting for the staircase shot to make the head element really sit in the plate.

We worked with Pacific Motion for the motion control. Mike Leben was our operator. For the NAC effects for the motion base, Nic Nicholson took care of this. Special thanks goes out to Christoph Gaudl for his camera and object tracking, Stefan Galleithner for taking on the task of converting all that data into something the camera and base would understand, and Kelly Chang and Mike Viscione for on-set Maya support.

Of course, you only get an element that works 80% of the way — the rest was laborious compositing work. Since we put the motion base to its speed limits on the staircase shot, we actually had to shoot it half speed and then speed it up in post. This meant a lot of warping/tracking was needed to make sure there was no slippage.

Michael Huber

The dummy we used for the live-action photography didn’t have any breathing movement in it, so we used parts of Harry’s bluescreen plates as a guideline of how his chest should move. These tricky tasks were expertly performed mainly by Danica Parry, Euna Kho and Sabrina Tenore.

Can you talk about how valuable it is being on set?
Huber: It is just valuable to be on set when the call sheet calls for a greenscreen, while we really need a bluescreen! But joking aside, Joel and Ethan were very happy to have someone there all the time during the main shoot in case something came up, which happened a lot because we were shooting outdoors so much and we were dependent on the weather.

For the opening shot of Buster riding through Monument Valley, they were thinking of a very specific view — something they had seen on a picture on the Internet. Through Google Maps and research, Alex was able to find out the exact location that picture was taken. So, on a weekend when we weren’t shooting, he packed up his family and drove up to the Valley to shoot photographs that would serve as the basis for the matte painting for the first shot of the film — instead of going there with a whole crew.

Another instance being on set helped would be the scene with Tom Waits in the tree — the backgrounds for these bluescreen shots were a mixture of B camera and Alex’s location photography while in Colorado. Same goes for the owl tree backgrounds.

What tools did East Side use on the film?
Huber: For software we called on Foundry Nuke (X & Studio), Boris FX Mocha Pro and Side Effects Houdini. For hardware we used HP and SuperMicro workstations running Linux. There was also proprietary software such as using Houdini digital assets for blood simulations.

We were using Autodesk Shotgun with a proprietary connection to Nuke that handled all our artist interaction and versioning, including automatically applying the correct Baselight grade when creating a version. This also allowed us to use the RV-Shotgun integration for reviewing.

Can you talk about the turnaround times and deadlines?
Lemke: Working on a Coen brothers film means you don’t have a lot of things you normally have to deal with — studio screenings, trailers, and such. At the same time, they insisted on working through the stories chronologically, so that meant that the later segments would come in late in the schedule. But, it is always a great experience working with filmmakers who have a clear vision and know what they are doing.

Behind the Title: DigitalFilm Tree colorist Dan Judy

This color vet finds inspiration for his work in everyday sights, such as sunsets, views of the city and even music.

NAME: Colorist Dan Judy

COMPANY: DigitalFilm Tree (DFT)

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
DFT provides cloud post services and software that evolve file-based workflows, simplify the creative process, and dramatically reduce production cost.

AS A COLORIST, WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
How creative the process is — it’s an amazing collaborative effort between the production team and color. Our attention to detail, both broad and minute, are almost surgical. It’s micro and macro. Oh, and having the right snacks available are absolutely critical!

Dan Judy

WHAT SYSTEM DO YOU WORK ON?
Blackmagic’s Resolve.

ARE YOU SOMETIMES ASKED TO DO MORE THAN JUST COLOR ON PROJECTS?
Nearly every project will have requests that are specific and non-color related. I was once asked to dry off an actress who was perspiring too much. At that time I didn’t have the towel function on my color corrector.

We are asked to help out with beauty fixes, add lens flares, light matches, remove footprints in sand . . . you get the idea.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
It is the satisfaction of the finished project, knowing that I got to contribute to the end result. It’s the confidence at the end of that process and putting the piece out there for people to enjoy.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
My first love was athletics, especially football. Would I have been a player? I had my shot and, well, I’m here. I’m sure my path would have continued in that direction.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS PROFESSION?
I had no clue this position was even a thing. I got an internship at a post facility through my masters program in Florida. They offered me a position at the end of the internship and my career began. A lot of bumps and bruises later and, well, I feel blessed to be where this path has led me.

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
The 100, Last Man on Earth, the Roseanne relaunch, Falling Skies and a few years ago, The Walking Dead.

The 100

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
I would say with a wink, the next one. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s like saying which of your children do you like better? I have been extraordinarily lucky that all my shows have given me a great deal of freedom to be really creative.

WHERE DO YOU FIND INSPIRATION?
Honestly, from life. Watching amazing sunsets, experiencing great expanses of nature. I also like having uplifting music on while I work.

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
I would say electricity is a big one, big smile here. Professionally? A bitchin’ hero monitor, a great calibrated scope and Resolve.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
Hanging with my family! They ground me every day and keep me honest. Their love is what keeps me wanting tomorrow to happen.

House of Cards showrunners Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese

By Iain Blair

Since it first premiered back in 2013, Netflix’s oh-so-timely political thriller House of Cards has been a big hit, delivering provocative, twisty plot lines peppered with surprises and shocks. It has also racked up dozens of awards, including 33 Primetime Emmys and fistfuls of Golden Globes along the way. But the biggest shocker of all was probably the real-life firing of star Kevin Spacey last year by Netflix, following allegations of sexual misconduct.

Writer Iain Blair (left) with Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese.

With Spacey — and power-hungry Frank Underwood — suddenly MIA, the upside is that girls now rule the world. This is great news for Robin Wright fans as the Golden Globe-winner and Emmy-nominee returns as President of the United States in Season 6, the final season of the series, which is now streaming on Netflix.

The show has added Oscar-nominees Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear to the cast, in addition to American Horror Story-alum Cody Fern. They join existing players Michael Kelly, Jayne Atkinson, Patricia Clarkson, Constance Zimmer, Derek Cecil, Campbell Scott and Boris McGiver.

Behind the scenes, Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese continue as showrunners for Season 6, and serve as executive producers along with Robin Wright, David Fincher, Joshua Donen, Dana Brunetti, Eric Roth, Michael Dobbs and Andrew Davies. Created for television by Beau Willimon, House of Cards is produced by Donen/Fincher/Roth and Trigger Street Productions, in association with Media Rights Capital for Netflix.

I recently spoke with Gibson and Pugliese about making the show and awards season.

When Kevin Spacey was fired, and you lost the show’s star, did you consider ending the series early?
Frank Pugliese: Yes, it was a huge thing, a big shock, and I think it had to be considered.

Melissa James Gibson: Everything was on the table as we wanted to make sure our way forward was the right one. We needed to regroup and carefully go through every possibility.

Pugliese: But pretty quickly we figured out that the best response was to try and tell the story without Francis on screen. So within a day or so, we were back at work, writing out ideas and discussing how to do it.

What can you tell us about the new season? Robin has said that it’ll be “a real shocker.”
Pugliese: Our hope is that it’s shocking but also feels inevitable at the same time, and we’re trying our best to give the show its most satisfying ending that has integrity and also serves a story that’s been told over many years.

Gibson: We tried to forge a brave way forward that would also be a reckoning for all of the characters We both knew that this season “reckoning” would be a key word, along with “complicity.”

Robin’s directed quite a few episodes over the years. Is it true she also directed the big finale?
Pugliese: Yes, and it seemed so appropriate. Remember, Season 5 ended with her saying, “My turn,” so even as we began exploring what to do this season, it seemed unacceptable to not have that examined and dramatized. It just seemed right that she would direct the last one, and the last scene of the whole story was actually done on the last day of shooting. So her as the lead and also directing just seemed right.

Gibson: It kind of all led up to that, and the focus was always going to be on her in Season 6.

Pugliese: So much had been set up at the end of the last season, and we’d talked so much during the planning of that season about how Season 6 would go, and about who really owns the White House. Pile on the power. And Francis says he’ll own the White House by owning her. No matter what, it was going to be all about her and the powers that be trying to own her — one of them being her husband.

Maybe it’s a very prescient arc, and America will elect a woman president next?
Gibson: Wouldn’t that be nice!

Do you like being a showrunners?
Gibson: We both love it. We came on as writers on Season 3 when Beau hired us, worked as writers on Season 4, and then began showrunning last season.

Pugliese: I really like it.

Gibson: It’s because I feel that a lot of the challenges Claire faces this season are the same ones you face as a showrunner (laughs). When you’re making decisions and setting priorities it says a lot about what you value.

What are the big challenges of showrunning?
Gibson: I’d say establishing all the priorities, both micro and macro.

Pugliese: We work very closely, and it probably goes back to our days in theater, but for me it’s establishing a collective communal work atmosphere. Your hope is that you can delegate a lot of the responsibility and then do the best work possible. If you can do that successfully, then the show’s successful. Helping establish all that really helped us with the new season, because in dealing with [the Spacey firing] we all felt that the best way to deal with it was to get to work and focus on telling the best story we could. Everyone agreed on that.

Where do you post?
Pugliese: We shoot in Baltimore, but all the post is done here in LA, and we do remote sessions using Pix.

Is that weird?
Pugliese: It’s weird until it’s not weird. If you think about it, it is, but you quickly get used to it and we can go over sequences in great detail.

Do you like the post process?
Gibson: We love it. It’s the third part of the entire storytelling, and I’ve learned so much dealing with post and editing and visual effects and so on. Our post supervisor, Hameed Shaukat, has been with the show since the very start.

You have several editors, I assume because of the time factor. How does that work?
Gibson: We have about four at any one time, and many have been with the show for years, and they’ll hop-scotch around. We give notes, they’ll re-cut stuff, and we’ll have robust conversations about scenes and the tone and pacing and so on.

Pugliese: Some days we’ll get on the phone right away and they’ll cut some things to see if they’re even working or not. There’s a lot of back and forth.

You have a big cast and a lot of stuff going on in each episode. What are the big editing challenges?
Gibson: It’s always about trying to balance the various competing elements and characters, and then this season we have a number of new characters and cast members, like Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear, so it’s all about calibration and the rhythm.

Pugliese: We work really hard to get the scripts in the best place possible, and we have really intensive and extensive tonal meetings where we go line by line and explain the intent to everyone involved. So if everyone’s on the same page when it comes to tone and intent, then they can go off and just do their jobs. That means less work for us, so we can then just focus on the overall storyline.

Gibson: It helps that there was a rigorous vocabulary established right at the start by David Fincher, so we had a great template to follow.

Pugliese: It also helped us in knowing when it was time to move away from that.

This show has a great score and great sound design. Talk about the importance of sound and music.
Gibson: It’s a vital part, and like Hameed, composer Jeff Beal has been with the show since day one, and he wrote that famous theme. He knows exactly what is needed. We also have a great sound team, with guys like supervising sound editor Jeremy Molod and sound designer Ren Klyce, who’ve also been there since day one. It’s a pretty well-oiled machine by now.

How important are awards to a show like this?
Pugliese: I get so excited when I see people in the show get recognized by their peers. Everyone works so hard.

There’s been a lot of talk about lack of opportunity for women in movies. Are things better in TV?
Gibson: It’s so good that people are now talking openly about the problems, and I think the industry as a whole is trying to make adjustments and make sure there are more women in the room, more people of color. But it’s not just that it’s the right thing to do ethically — it’s also about being good for the work. It needs to change.

Pugliese: Yes, it does need to change, and a correction is long overdue.


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

 

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!

Behind the Title: Post supervisor Chloe Blackwell

NAME: Chloe Blackwell

COMPANY: UK-based Click Post Production

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
I provide bespoke post solutions, which include consultancy and development courses for production companies. I’m also currently working on an online TV series full time. More on that later!

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Post Production Supervisor

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
Each job that I take on is quite different, so my role will evolve to suit each company’s needs.

Usually my job starts at the early stages of production, so I will meet with the editorial team to work out what they are looking to achieve visually. From this I can ascertain how their post will work most effectively, and work back from their delivery dates to put an edit and finishing schedule together.

For every shoot I will oversee the rushes being ingested and investigate any technical issues that crop up. Once the post production phase starts, I will be in charge of managing the offline. This includes ensuring editors are aware of deadlines and working with executives and/or directors and producers to ensure smooth running of their show.

This also requires me to liaise with the post house, keeping them informed of production’s requirements and schedules, and trouble shooting any obstacles that inevitably crop up along the way.

I also deal directly with the broadcaster, ensuring delivery requirements are clear, ironing out any technical queries from both sides and ensuring the final masters are delivered in timely manner. This also means that I have to be meticulous about quality control of the final product, as any errors can cause huge delays. As the post supervisor managing the post production budget, efficiently is vital. I keep a constant eye on spending and keep the production team up to date with cost reports.

Alternatively, I also offer my services as a consultant, if all a production needs is some initial support. I’m also in the process of setting up courses for production teams that will help them gain a better understanding of the new 4KHDR world, and how they can work to realistic timing and budgets.

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
Probably the amount of decisions I have to make on a daily basis. There are so many different ways of doing things, from converting frame rates, working with archive and creating the workflows for editorial to work with.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
I think I have the best job in the world! I am one of the very few people on any production that sees the show from early development, right through to delivery. It’s a very privileged position.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
My role can be quite intensive, so there is usually a real lack of downtime.

WHAT IS YOUR MOST PRODUCTIVE TIME OF THE DAY?
As I have quite a long commute, I find that first thing in the morning is my most productive time. From about 6am I have a few hours of uninterrupted work I can do to set my day up to run smoothly.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
I would have joined the military!

HOW EARLY ON DID YOU KNOW THIS WOULD BE YOUR PATH?
As cheesy as it sounds, post production actually found me! I was working for a production company very early in my career, and I was going to be made redundant. Luckily, I was a valued member of the company and was re-drafted into their post production team. At first I thought it was a disaster, however with lots of help, I hit my stride and fell in love with the job.

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
For the last three years I have been working on The Grand Tour for Amazon Prime.

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
That’s a hard question as I have worked on so many.

But The Grand Tour has been the most technically challenging. It was the first ever 4K HDR factual entertainment show! Coupled with the fact that it was all shot at 23.98 with elements shot as live. It was one of those jobs where you couldn’t really ask people for advice because it just hadn’t been done.

However, I am also really proud of some of the documentaries I have made, including Born to be Different, Power and the Women’s World and VE day.

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
My coffee machine, my toaster and the Avid Media Composer.

WHAT SOCIAL MEDIA CHANNELS DO YOU FOLLOW?
All of them…I have to! Part of being in post is being aware of all the new technologies, shows and channels/online platforms out there. You have to keep ahead of the times.

DO YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC WHILE YOU WORK?
Yes, I love music! I have an eclectic, wide-ranging taste, which means I have a million playlists on Spotify! I love finding new music and playing it for Jess (Jessica Redman, my post production coordinator). We are often shimmying around the office. It keeps the job light, especially during the most demanding days.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
I am fortunate enough to be able to take my dog Mouse with me to work. She keeps me sane and keeps me calm, whilst also providing those I work with, with a little joy too!

I am also an obsessive reader, so any down time I get I am often found curled up under a blanket with a good book.

My passion for television really knows no bounds, so I watch TV a lot too! I try to watch at least the first episode of all new TV programs. I rarely get to go to the cinema, but when I do it’s such a treat to watch films on the big screen.

Creating super sounds for Disney XD’s Marvel Rising: Initiation

By Jennifer Walden

Marvel revealed “the next generation of Marvel heroes for the next generation of Marvel fans” in a behind-the-scenes video back in December. Those characters stayed tightly under wraps until August 13, when a compilation of animated shorts called Marvel Rising: Initiation aired on Disney XD. Those shorts dive into the back story of the new heroes and give audiences a taste of what they can expect in the feature-length animated film Marvel Rising: Secret Warriors that aired for the first time on September 30 on both the Disney Channel and Disney XD simultaneously.

L-R: Pat Rodman and Eric P. Sherman

Handling audio post on both the animated shorts and the full-length feature is the Bang Zoom team led by sound supervisor Eric P. Sherman and chief sound engineer Pat Rodman. They worked on the project at the Bang Zoom Atomic Olive location in Burbank. The sounds they created for this new generation of Marvel heroes fit right in with the established Marvel universe but aren’t strictly limited to what already exists. “We love to keep it kind of close, unless Marvel tells us that we should match a specific sound. It really comes down to whether it’s a sound for a new tech or an old tech,” says Rodman.

Sherman adds, “When they are talking about this being for the next generation of fans, they’re creating a whole new collection of heroes, but they definitely want to use what works. The fans will not be disappointed.”

The shorts begin with a helicopter flyover of New York City at night. Blaring sirens mix with police radio chatter as searchlights sweep over a crime scene on the street below. A SWAT team moves in as a voice blasts over a bullhorn, “To the individual known as Ghost Spider, we’ve got you surrounded. Come out peacefully with your hands up and you will not be harmed.” Marvel Rising: Initiation wastes no time in painting a grim picture of New York City. “There is tension and chaos. You feel the oppressiveness of the city. It’s definitely the darker side of New York,” says Sherman.

The sound of the city throughout the series was created using a combination of sourced recordings of authentic New York City street ambience and custom recordings of bustling crowds that Rodman captured at street markets in Los Angeles. Mix-wise, Rodman says they chose to play the backgrounds of the city hotter than normal just to give the track a more immersive feel.

Ghost Spider
Not even 30 seconds into the shorts, the first new Marvel character makes her dramatic debut. Ghost Spider (Dove Cameron), who is also known as Spider Gwen, bursts from a third-story window, slinging webs at the waiting officers. Since she’s a new character, Rodman notes that she’s still finding her way and there’s a bit of awkwardness to her character. “We didn’t want her to sound too refined. Her tech is good, but it’s new. It’s kind of like Spider-Man first starting out as a kid and his tech was a little off,” he says.

Sound designer Gordon Hookailo spent a lot of time crafting the sound of Spider Gwen’s webs, which according to Sherman have more of a nylon, silky kind of sound than Spider-Man’s webs. There’s a subliminal ghostly wisp sound to her webs also. “It’s not very overt. There’s just a little hint of a wisp, so it’s not exactly like regular Spider-Man’s,” explains Rodman.

Initially, Spider Gwen seems to be a villain. She’s confronted by the young-yet-authoritative hero Patriot (Kamil McFadden), a member of S.H.I.E.L.D. who was trained by Captain America. Patriot carries a versatile, high-tech shield that can do lots of things, like become a hovercraft. It shoots lasers and rockets too. The hoverboard makes a subtle whooshy, humming sound that’s high-tech in a way that’s akin to the Goblin’s hovercraft. “It had to sound like Captain America too. We had to make it match with that,” notes Rodman.

Later on in the shorts, Spider Gwen’s story reveals that she’s actually one of the good guys. She joins forces with a crew of new heroes, starting with Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl.

Ms. Marvel (Kathreen Khavari) has the ability to stretch and grow. When she reaches out to grab Spider Gwen’s leg, there’s a rubbery, creaking sound. When she grows 50 feet tall she sounds 50 feet tall, complete with massive, ground shaking footsteps and a lower ranged voice that’s sweetened with big delays and reverbs. “When she’s large, she almost has a totally different voice. She’s sound like a large, forceful woman,” says Sherman.

Squirrel Girl
One of the favorites on the series so far is Squirrel Girl (Milana Vayntrub) and her squirrel sidekick Tippy Toe. Squirrel Girl has  the power to call a stampede of squirrels. Sound-wise, the team had fun with that, capturing recordings of animals small and large with their Zoom H6 field recorder. “We recorded horses and dogs mainly because we couldn’t find any squirrels in Burbank; none that would cooperate, anyway,” jokes Rodman. “We settled on a larger animal sound that we manipulated to sound like it had little feet. And we made it sound like there are huge numbers of them.”

Squirrel Girl is a fan of anime, and so she incorporates an anime style into her attacks, like calling out her moves before she makes them. Sherman shares, “Bang Zoom cut its teeth on anime; it’s still very much a part of our lifeblood. Pat and I worked on thousands of episodes of anime together, and we came up with all of these techniques for making powerful power moves.” For example, they add reverb to the power moves and choose “shings” that have an anime style sound.

What is an anime-style sound, you ask? “Diehard fans of anime will debate this to the death,” says Sherman. “It’s an intuitive thing, I think. I’ll tell Pat to do that thing on that line, and he does. We’re very much ‘go with the gut’ kind of people.

“As far as anime style sound effects, Gordon [Hookailo] specifically wanted to create new anime sound effects so we didn’t just take them from an existing library. He created these new, homegrown anime effects.”

Quake
The other hero briefly introduced in the shorts is Quake (Chloe Bennet), who is the same actress who plays Daisy Johnson, aka Quake, on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Sherman says, “Gordon is a big fan of that show and has watched every episode. He used that as a reference for the sound of Quake in the shorts.”

The villain in the shorts has so far remained nameless, but when she first battles Spider Gwen the audience sees her pair of super-daggers that pulse with a green glow. The daggers are somewhat “alive,” and when they cut someone they take some of that person’s life force. “We definitely had them sound as if the power was coming from the daggers and not from the person wielding them,” explains Rodman. “The sounds that Gordon used were specifically designed — not pulled from a library — and there is a subliminal vocal effect when the daggers make a cut. It’s like the blade is sentient. It’s pretty creepy.”

Voices
The character voices were recorded at Bang Zoom, either in the studio or via ISDN. The challenge was getting all the different voices to sound as though they were in the same space together on-screen. Also, some sessions were recorded with single mics on each actor while other sessions were recorded as an ensemble.

Sherman notes it was an interesting exercise in casting. Some of the actors were YouTube stars (who don’t have much formal voice acting experience) and some were experienced voice actors. When an actor without voiceover experience comes in to record, the Bang Zoom team likes to start with mic technique 101. “Mic technique was a big aspect and we worked on that. We are picky about mic technique,” says Sherman. “But, on the other side of that, we got interesting performances. There’s a realism, a naturalness, that makes the characters very relatable.”

To get the voices to match, Rodman spent a lot of time using Waves EQ, Pro Tools Legacy Pitch, and occasionally Waves UltraPitch for when an actor slipped out of character. “They did lots of takes on some of these lines, so an actor might lose focus on where they were, performance-wise. You either have to pull them back in with EQ, pitching or leveling,” Rodman explains.

One highlight of the voice recording process was working with voice actor Dee Bradley Baker, who did the squirrel voice for Tippy Toe. Most of Tippy Toe’s final track was Dee Bradley Baker’s natural voice. Rodman rarely had to tweak the pitch, and it needed no other processing or sound design enhancement. “He’s almost like a Frank Welker (who did the voice of Fred Jones on Scooby-Doo, the voice of Megatron starting with the ‘80s Transformers franchise and Nibbler on Futurama).

Marvel Rising: Initiation was like a training ground for the sound of the feature-length film. The ideas that Bang Zoom worked out there were expanded upon for the soon-to-be released Marvel Rising: Secret Warriors. Sherman concludes, “The shorts gave us the opportunity to get our arms around the property before we really dove into the meat of the film. They gave us a chance to explore these new characters.”


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

Montreal’s Real by Fake acquires LA’s Local Hero

Montréal-based post company Real by Fake has acquired Santa Monica’s Local Hero, whose credits include Mr. Robot, Captain Fantastic and Pitch Perfect. The acquisition creates an international post production and VFX entity that gives Real by Fake (C.R.A.Z.Y., Café de Flore, Dallas Buyers Club, Wild, Demolition) a significant presence in the Los Angeles area, while also bringing Local Hero’s established brand to Montréal. The two companies recently collaborated on all post and VFX for HBO’s popular limited series Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects. Check out our coverage of Sharp Objects here.

The companies will offer a full suite of services in both Montréal and Los Angeles, including: workflow consulting and look development; film and television tax credit-claiming services in Québec, California and Georgia; dailies; VFX; editorial suites; digital intermediates; full sound packages; mastering and deliverables (including 4K, VR and Dolby Vision HDR).

The companies will retain the Real by Fake brand for VFX and the Local Hero brand for all other post services. Marc Côté will continue to serve as the president of Real by Fake and run all Canadian operations. Steve Bannerman will continue as CEO of Local Hero and run all US operations. Leandro Marini will continue to manage all Local Hero creative services and customer support.

“I have collaborated closely with Marc Côté and Real by Fake on many projects, and they have become the trusted producing and post production partner for all my projects,” says director EP Jean-Marc Vallée. “I witnessed the teamwork between Real by Fake and Local Hero first-hand while working on Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects.”

“This acquisition is perfect for Local Hero for several reasons,” according to Steve Bannerman, CEO of Local Hero. “First, if gives us significant scale. Many of our best clients, like Lynette Howell and Matt Ross, are now taking on some of the biggest projects in Hollywood, and we need scale to work on those projects — particularly in VFX. We now have that. We can also offer our clients access to the lucrative tax incentives in Montreal and Georgia, so they can allocate more of their budget above the line. This is a crucial component in getting any project made in today’s climate. And, lastly, we get a fantastic partner in Marc Côté, and the team at Real by Fake. Marc brings a tremendous amount of cutting-edge VFX producing and on-set technical skill to the company. As more of our business trends toward VFX, this expertise is crucial in winning the big projects, while efficiently managing their VFX budgets. In short, we now have the complete package — world-class scale, skill and tax incentives.”

The Emmy-nominated sound editing team’s process on HBO’s Vice Principals

By Jennifer Walden

HBO’s comedy series Vice Principals — starring Danny McBride and Walton Goggins as two rival vice principals of North Jackson High School — really went wild for the Season 2 finale. Since the school’s mascot is a tiger, they hired an actual tiger for graduation day, which wreaked havoc inside the school. (The tiger was part real and part VFX, but you’d never know thanks to the convincing visuals and sound.)

The tiger wasn’t the only source of mayhem. There was gunfire and hostages, a car crash and someone locked in a cage — all in the name of comedy.

George Haddad

Through all the bedlam, it was vital to have clean and clear dialogue. The show’s comedy comes from the jokes that are often ad-libbed and subtle.

Here, Warner Bros. Sound supervising sound editor George Haddad, MPSE, and dialogue/ADR editor Karyn Foster talk about what went into the Emmy-nominated sound editing on the Vice Principals Season 2 finale, “The Union Of The Wizard & The Warrior.”

Of all the episodes in Season 2, why did you choose “The Union of the Wizard & The Warrior” for award consideration?
George Haddad: Personally, this was the funniest episode — whether that’s good for sound or not. They just let loose on this one. For a comedy, it had so many great opportunities for sound effects, walla, loop group, etc. It was the perfect match for award consideration. Even the picture editor said beforehand that this could be the one. Of course, we don’t pay too much attention to its award-potential; we focus on the sound first. But, sure enough, as we went through it, we all agreed that this could be it.

Karyn Foster: This episode was pretty dang large, with the tiger and the chaos that the tiger causes.

In terms of sound, what was your favorite moment in this episode? Why?
Haddad: It was during the middle of the show when the tiger got loose from the cage and created havoc. It’s always great for sound when an animal gets loose. And it was particularly fun because of the great actors involved. This had comedy written all over it. You know no one is going to die, just because the nature of the show. (Actually, the tiger did eat the animal handler, but he kind of deserved it.)

Karyn Foster

I had a lot of fun with the tiger and we definitely cheated reality there. That was a good sound design sequence. We added a lot of kids screaming and adults screaming. The reaction of the teachers was even more scared than the students, so it was funny. It was a perfect storm for sound effects and dialogue.

Foster: My favorite scene was when Lee [Goggins] is on the ground after the tiger mauls his hand and he’s trying to get Neal [McBride] to say, “I love you.” That scene was hysterical.

What was your approach to the tiger sounds?
Haddad: We didn’t have production sound for the tiger, as the handler on-set kept a close watch on the real animal. Then in the VFX, we have the tiger jumping, scratching with its paws, roaring…

I looked into realistic tiger sounds, and they’re not the type of animal you’d think would roar or snarl — sounds we are used to having for a lion. We took some creative license and blended sounds together to make the tiger a little more ferocious, but not too scary. Because, again, it’s a comedy so we needed to find the right balance.

What was the most challenging scene for sound?
Haddad: The entire cast was in this episode, during the graduation ceremony. So you had 500 students and a dozen of the lead cast members. That was pretty full, in terms of sound. We had to make it feel like everyone is panicking at the same time while focusing on the tiger. We had to keep the tension going, but it couldn’t be scary. We had to keep the tone of the comedy going. That’s where the balance was tricky and the mixers did a great job with all the material we gave them. I think they found the right tone for the episode.

Foster: For dialogue, the most challenging scene was when they are in the cafeteria with the tiger. That was a little tough because there are a lot of people talking and there were overlapping lines. Also, it was shot in a practical location, so there was room reflection on the production dialogue.

A comedy series is all about getting a laugh. How do you use sound to enhance the comedy in this series?
Haddad: We take the lead off of Danny McBride. Whatever his character is doing, we’re not going to try to go over the top just because he and his co-stars are brilliant at it. But, we want to add to the comedy. We don’t go cartoonish. We try to keep the sounds in reality but add a little bit of a twist on top of what the characters are already doing so brilliantly on the screen.

Quite frankly, they do most of the work for us and we just sweeten what is going on in the scene. We stay away from any of the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoon sound effects. It’s not that kind of comedy, but at the same time we will throw a little bit of slapstick in there — whether it’s a character falling or slipping or it’s a gun going off. For the gunshots, I’ll have the bullet ricochet and hit a tree just to add to the comedy that’s already there.

A comedy series is all about the dialogue and the jokes. What are some things you do to help the dialogue come through?
Haddad: The production dialogue was clean overall, and the producers don’t want to change any of the performances, even if a line is a bit noisy. The mixers did a great job in making sure that clarity was king for dialogue. Every single word and every single joke was heard perfectly. Comedy is all about timing.

We were fortunate because we get clean dialogue and we found the right balance of all the students screaming and the sounds of panicking when the tiger created havoc. We wanted to make sure that Danny and his co-stars were heard loud and clear because the comedy starts with them. Vice Principals is a great and natural sounding show for dialogue.

Foster: Vice Principals was a pleasure to work on because the dialogue was in good shape. The editing on this episode wasn’t difficult. The lines went together pretty evenly.

We basically work with what we’ve been given. It’s all been chosen for us and our job is to make it sound smooth. There’s very minimal ADR on the show.

In terms of clarification, we make sure that any lines that really need to be heard are completely separate, so when it gets to the mix stage the mixer can push that line through without having to push everything else.

As far as timing, we don’t make any changes. That’s a big fat no-no for us. The picture editor and showrunners have already decided what they want and where, and we don’t mess with that.

There were a large number of actors present for the graduation ceremony. Was the production sound mixer able to record those people in that environment? Or, was that sound covered in loop?
Haddad: There are so many people in the scene. and that can be challenging to do solely in loop group. We did multiple passes with the actors we had in loop. We also had the excellent sound library here at Warner Bros. Sound. I also captured recordings at my kids’ high school. So we had a lot of resource material to pull from and we were able to build out that scene nicely. What we see on-camera, with the number of students and adults, we were able to represent that through sound.

As for recording at my kids’ high school, I got permission from the principal but, of course, my kids were embarrassed to have their dad at school with his sound equipment. So I tried to stay covert. The microphones were placed up high, in inconspicuous places. I didn’t ask any students to do anything. We were like chameleons — we came and set up our equipment and hit record. I had Røde microphones because they were easy to mount on the wall and easy to hide. One was a Røde VideoMic and the other was their NTG1 microphone. I used a Roland R-26 recorder because it’s portable and I love the quality. It’s great for exterior sounds too because you don’t get a lot of hiss.

We spent a couple hours recording and we were lucky enough to get material to use in the show. I just wanted to catch the natural sound of the school. There are 2,700 students, so it’s an unusually high student population and we were able to capture that. We got lucky when kids walked by laughing or screaming or running to the next class. That was really useful material.

Foster: There was production crowd recorded. For most of the episodes when they had pep rallies and events, there was production crowd recorded. They took the time to record some specific takes. When you’re shooting group on the stage, you’re limited to the number of people you have. You have to do multiple takes to try and mimic that many people.

Can you talk about the tools you couldn’t have done without?
Haddad: This show has a natural sound, so we didn’t use pitch shifting or reverb or other processing like we’d use on a show like Gotham, where we do character vocal treatments.

Foster: I would have to say iZotope RX 6. That tool for a dialogue editor is one that you can’t live without. There were some challenging scenes on Vice Principals, and the production sound mixer Christof Gebert did a really good job of getting the mics in there. The iso-mics were really clean, and that’s unusual these days. The dialogue on the show was pleasant to work on because of that.

What makes this show challenging in terms of dialogue is that it’s a comedy, so there’s a lot of ad-libbing. With ad-libbing, there’s no other takes to choose from. So if there’s a big clunk on a line, you have to make that work. With RX 6, you can minimize the clunk on a line or get rid of it. If those lines are ad-libs, they don’t want to have to loop those. The ad-libbing makes the show great but it also makes the dialogue editing a bit more complicated.

Any final thoughts you’d like to share on Vice Principals?
Haddad: We had a big crew because the show was so busy. I was lucky to get some of the best here at Warner Bros. Sound. They helped to make the show sound great, and we’re all very proud of it. We appreciate our peers selecting Vice Principals for Emmy nomination. That to us was a great feeling, to have all of our hard work pay off with an Emmy nomination.


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

Crafting sound for Emmy-winning Atlanta

By Jennifer Walden

FX Network’s dramedy series Atlanta, which recently won an Emmy for Outstanding Sound Editing For A Comedy or Drama Series (Half-Hour)tells the story of three friends from, well, Atlanta — a local rapper named Paper Boi whose star is on the rise (although the universe seems to be holding him down), his cousin/manager Earn and their head-in-the-clouds friend Darius.