Roundtable: Director Autumn McAlpin and her Miss Arizona post team

By Randi Altman

The independent feature film Miss Arizona is a sort of fish out of water tale that focuses on Rose Raynes, former beauty queen and current bored wife and mother who accepts an invitation to teach a life skills class at a women’s shelter. As you might imagine, the four women who she meets there don’t feel they have much in common. While Rose is “teaching,” the women are told that one of their abusers is on his way to the shelter. The women escape and set out on an all-night adventure through LA and, ultimately, to a club where the women enter Rose into a drag queen beauty pageant — and, of course, along the way they form a bond that changes them all.

L-R: Camera operator Eitan Almagor, DP Jordan McKittrick and Autumn McAlpin.

Autumn McAlpin wrote and directed the film, which has been making its way through the film festival circuit. She hired a crew made up of 70 percent women to help tell this tale of female empowerment. We reached out to her, her colorist Mars Williamson and her visual effects/finishing artist John Davidson to find out more.

Why did you choose the Alexa Mini? And why did you shoot mostly handheld?
Autumn McAlpin: The Alexa Mini was the first choice of our DP Jordan McKittrick, with whom I frequently collaborate. We were lucky enough to be able to score two Alexa Mini cameras on this shoot, which really helped us achieve the coverage needed for an ensemble piece in which five-plus key actors were in almost every shot. We love the image quality and dynamic range of the Alexas, and the compact and lightweight nature of the Mini helped us achieve an aggressive shooting schedule in just 14 days.

We felt handheld would achieve the intimate yet at times erratic look we were going for following an ensemble of five women from very different backgrounds who were learning to get along while trying to survive. We wanted the audience to feel as if they were going on the journey along with the women, and thus felt handheld would be a wise approach to accomplish this goal.

How early did post — edit, color — get involved?
McAlpin: We met with our editor Carmen Morrow before the shoot, and she and her assistant editor Dustin Fleischmann were integral in delivering a completed rough cut just five weeks after we wrapped. We needed to make key festival deadlines. Each day Dustin would drive footage from set over to Carmen’s bay, where she could assemble while we were shooting so we could make sure we weren’t missing anything crucial. This was amazing, as we’d often be able to see a rough assembly of a scene we had shot in the morning by the end of day. They cut on Avid Media Composer.

My DP Jordan and I agreed on the overall look of the film and how we wanted the color to feel rich and saturated. We were really excited about what we saw in our colorist’s reel. We didn’t meet our colorist Mars Williamson until after we had wrapped production. Mars had moved from LA to Melbourne, so we knew we wouldn’t be able to work in close quarters, but we were confident we’d be able to accomplish the desired workflow in the time needed. Mars was extremely flexible to work with.

Can you talk more about the look of the film.
McAlpin: Due to the nature of our film, we sought to create a rich, saturated look color wise. Our film follows a former pageant queen on an all-night adventure through LA with four unlikely friends she meets at a women’s shelter. In a way, we tried to channel an Oz-like world as our ensemble embarks into the unknown. We deliberately used color to represent the various realities the women inhabit. In the film’s open, our production design (by Gabriel Gonzales) and wardrobe (by Cat Velosa) helped achieve a stark, cold world — filled with blues and whites — to represent our protagonist Rose’s loneliness.

As Rose moves into the shelter, we went with warmer tones and a more eclectic production design. A good portion of Act II takes place in a drag club, which we asked Gabe to design to be rich and vibrant, using reds and purples. Toward the end of the film as Rose finds resolution, we went with more naturalistic lighting, primarily outdoor shots and golden hues. Before production, Jordan and I pulled stills from films such as Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Black Swan and Short Term 12, which provided strong templates for the looks we were trying to achieve.

Is there a particular scene or look that stands out for you?
McAlpin: There is a scene when our lead Rose (Johanna Braddy) performs a ventriloquist act onstage with a puppet and they sing Shania Twain’s “Man, I Feel Like a Woman.”  Both Rose and the puppet wore matching cowgirl wardrobe and braids, and this scene was lit to be particularly vibrant with hot pinks and purples. I remember watching the monitors on set and feeling like we had really nailed the rich, saturated look we were going for in this offbeat pageant world we had created.

L-R: Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Shoniqua Shandai, producer De Cooper, Johanna Brady, Autumn McAlpin, Otmara Marrero and Robyn Lively.

Can you talk about the workflow from set to post?
McAlpin: As a low-budget indie, many of our team work from home offices, which made collaboration friendly and flexible. For the four months following production, I floated between the workspaces of our talented and efficient editor Carmen Morrow, brilliant composer Nami Melumad, dedicated sound designer Yu-Ting Su, VFX and online extraordinaire John Davidson, and we used Frame.io to work with our amazing colorist Mars Williamson. Everyone worked so hard to help achieve our vision in our timeframe. Using Frame.io and Box helped immensely with file delivery, and I remember many careful drives around LA, toting our two RAID drives between departments. Postmates food delivery service helped us power through! Everyone worked hard together to deliver the final product, and for that I’m so grateful.

Can you talk about the type of film you were trying to make, and did it turn out as you hoped?
McAlpin: I volunteered in a women’s shelter for several years teaching a life skills class, and this was an experience that introduced me to strong, vibrant women whose stories I longed to tell. I wrote this script very quickly, in just three weeks, though really, the story seemed to write itself. It was the fall of 2016, at a time where I was agitated by the way women were being portrayed in the media. This was shortly before the #metoo movement, and during the election and women’s march. The time felt right to tell a story about women and other marginalized groups coming together to help each other find their voices and a safe community in a rapidly divisive world.

I’m not going to lie, with our budget, all facets of production and post were quite challenging, but I was so overwhelmed by the fastidious efforts of everyone on our team to create something powerful. I feel we were all aligned in vision, which kept everyone fueled to create a finished product I am very proud of. The crowning moment of the experience was after our world premiere at Geena Davis’ Bentonville Film Fest, when a few women from the audience approached and confided that they, too, had lived in shelters and felt our film spoke to the truths they had experienced. This certainly made the whole process worthwhile.

Autumn, you wrote as well as directed. Did the story change or evolve once you started shooting or did you stick to the original script?
McAlpin: As a director who is very open to improv and creative play on set, I was quite surprised by how little we deviated from the script. Conceptually, we stuck to the story as written. We did have a few actors who definitely punched up scenes by making certain lines more their own (and much more humorous, i.e. the drag queens). And there were moments when location challenges forced last-minute rewrites, but hey, I guess that’s one advantage to having the writer in the director’s chair! This story seemed to flow from the moment it first arrived in my head, telling me what it wanted to be, so we kind of just trusted that, and I think we achieved our narrative goals.

You used a 70 percent female crew. Can you talk about why that was important to you?
McAlpin: For this film, our producer DeAnna Cooper and I wanted to flip the traditional gender ratios found on sets, as ours was indeed a story rooted in female empowerment. We wanted our set to feel like a compatible, safe environment for characters seeking safety and trusted female friendships. So many of the cast and crew who joined our team expressed delight in joining a largely female team, and I think/hope we created a safe space for all to create!

Also, as women, we tend to get each other — and there were times when those on our production team (all mothers) were able to support each other’s familial needs when emergencies at home arose. We also want to give a shout-out to the numerous woman-supporting men we had on our team, who were equally wonderful to work with!

What was everyone’s favorite scene and why?
McAlpin: There’s a moment when Rose has a candid conversation with a drag queen performer named Luscious (played by Johnathan Wallace) in a green room during which each opens up about who they are and how they got there. Ours is a fish out of water story as Rose tries to achieve her goal in a world quite new to her, but in this scene, two very different people bond in a sincere and heartfelt way. The performances in this scene were just dynamite, thanks to the talents of Johanna and Johnathan. We are frequently told this scene really affects viewers and changes perspectives.

I also have a personal favorite moment toward the end of the film in which a circle of women from very different backgrounds come together to help out a character named Leslie, played by the dynamic Robyn Lively, who is searching for her kids. One of the women helping Leslie says, “I’m a mama, too,” and I love the strength felt in this group hug moment as the village comes together to defend each other.

If you all had to do it again, what would you do differently?
McAlpin: This was one fast-moving train, and I know, as is the case in every film, there are little shots or scenes we’d all love to tweak just a little if given the chance to start over from scratch. But at this point, we are focusing on the positives and what lies in store for Miss Arizona. Since our Bentonville premiere and LA premiere at Dances With Films, we have been thrilled to receive numerous distribution offers, and it’s looking like a fall worldwide release may be in store. We look forward to connecting with audiences everywhere as we share the message of this film.

Mars Williamson

Mars, can you talk about your process and how you worked with the team? 
Williamson: Autumn put us in touch, and John and I touched based a little bit before I was going to start color. We all had a pretty good idea of where we were taking it from the offline and discussed little tweaks here and there, so it was fairly straightforward. There were a couple of things like changing a wall color and the last scene needing more sunset than was shot. Autumn and John are super easy and great to work with. We found out pretty early that we’d be able to collaborate pretty easily since John has DaVinci Resolve on his end in the states as well.  I moved to Melbourne permanently right before I really got into the grade.

Unbeknownst to me, Melbourne was/is in the process of upgrading their Internet, which is currently painfully slow. We did a couple of reviews via Frame.io and eventually moved to me just emailing John my project. He could relink to the media on his end and all of my color grading would come across for sessions in LA with Autumn. It was the best solution to contend with the snail pace uploads of large files. From there it was just going through it reel by reel and getting notes from the stateside team. I couldn’t have worked on this with a better group of people.

What types of projects do you work on most often?
Williamson: My bread and butter has always been TV commercials, but I’ve worked hard to make sure I work on all sort of formats across different genres. I like to make sure I’ve got a wide range of stuff under my belt. The pool is smaller here in Australia than it is in LA (where I moved from) so TV commercials are still the bill payers, but I’m also still dipping into the indie scene here and trying to diversify what I work on. Still working on a lot of indie projects and music videos from the states as well so thank you stateside clients! Thankfully the difference in time hasn’t hindered most of them (smiles). It has led to an all-nighter here and there for me, but I’m happy to lose sleep for the right projects.

How did you work with the DP and director on the look of the film? What look did you want and how did you work to achieve that look or looks?
John Davidson: Magic Feather is a production company and creative agency that I started back in 2004. We provide theatrical marketing and creative services for a wide variety of productions. From the 3D atomic transitions in Big Bang Theory to the recent Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom week-long event on Discovery, we have a pretty great body of work. I came onboard Miss Arizona very much by accident. Last year, after working with Weta in New Zealand, we moved to Laguna Niguel and connected with Autumn and her husband Michael via some mutual friends. I was intrigued that they had just finished shooting this movie on their own and offered to replace a few license plates and a billboard. Somehow I turned that into coordinating the post-Avid workflow across the planet and creating 100-plus visual effects shots. It was a fantastic opportunity to use every tool in our arsenal to help a film with a nice message and a family we have come to adore.

John Davidson

Working with Jordan and Autumn for VFX and final mastering was educational for all of us, but definitely so with me. As I mentioned to Jordan after the showing in Hollywood, if I did my job right you would never know. There were quite a few late nights, but I think that they are both very happy with the results.

John, I understand there were some challenges in the edit? Relinking the camera source footage? Can you talk about that and how you worked around it?
Davidson: The original Avid cut was edited off of the dailies at 1080p with embedded audio. The masters were 3.2k Arri Alexa Mini Log with no sync sound. There were timecode issues the first few days on set and because Mars was using DaVinci Resolve to color, we knew we had to get the footage from Avid to Resolve somehow. Once we got the footage into DaVinci via AAF, I realized it was going to be a challenge relinking sources from the dailies. Resolve was quite the utility knife, and after a bit of tweaking we were able to get the silent master video clips linked up. Because 12TB drives are expensive, we thought it best to trim media to 48-frame handles and ship a smaller drive to Australia for Mars to work with. With Mars’s direction we were able to get that handled and shipped.

While Mars was coloring in Australia, I went back into the sources and began the process of relinking the original separate audio to the video sources because I needed to be able to adjust/re-edit a few scenes that had technical issues we couldn’t fix with VFX. Resolve was fantastic here again. Any clip that couldn’t be automatically linked via timecode was connected with clap marks using the waveform. For safety, I batch-exported all of the footage out with embedded audio and then relinked the film to that. This was important for archival purposes as well as any potential fixes we might have to do before the film delivered.

At this point Mars was sharing her cuts on Frame.io with Jordan and Autumn. I felt like a little green shift was being introduced over H.264 so we would occasionally meet here to review a relinked XML that Mars would send for a full quality inspection. For VFX we used Adobe After Effects and worked in flat color. We then would upload shots to box.com for Mars to incorporate into her edit. There were also two re-cut scenes that were done this way as well which was a challenge because any changes had to be shared with the audio teams who were actively scoring and mixing.

Once Mars was done we put the final movie together here, and I spent about two weeks working on it. At this point I took the film from Resolve to FCP X. Because we were mastering at 1080p, we had the full 3.2K frame for flexibility. Using a 1080p timeline in FCP X, the first order of business was making final on-site color adjustments with Autumn.

Can you talk about the visual effects provided?
Davidson: For VFX, we focused on things like the license plates and billboards, but also took a bit of initiative and reviewed the whole movie for areas we could help. Like everyone else, I loved the look of the stage and club scenes, but wanted to add just a little flare to the backlights so the LED grids would be less visible. This was done in Final Cut Pro X using the MotionVFX plugin mFlare2. It made very quick work of using its internal Mocha engine to track the light sources and obscure them as needed when a light went behind a person’s head, for example. It would have been agony tracking so many lights in all those shots using anything else. We had struggled for a while getting replacement license plates to track using After Effects and Mocha. However, the six shots that gave us the most headaches were done as a test in FCP X in less than a day using CoreMelt’s TrackX. We also used Final Cut Pro X’s stabilization to smooth out any jagged camera shakes as well as added some shake using FCP X’s handheld effect on a few shots that needed it for consistency.

Another area we had to get creative with was with night driving shots that were just too bright even after color. By layering a few different Rampant Design overlays set to multiply, we were able to simulate lights in motion around the car at night with areas randomly increasing and decreasing in brightness. That had a big impact on smoothing out those scenes, and I think everyone was pretty happy with the result. For fun, Autumn also let me add in a few mostly digital shots, like the private jet. This was done in After Effects using Trapcode Particular for the contrails, and a combination of Maxon Cinema 4D and Element 3D for the jet.

Resolve’s face refinement and eye brightening were used in many scenes to give a little extra eye light. We also used Resolve for sky replacement on the final shot of the film. Resolve’s tracker is also pretty incredible, and was used to hide little things that needed to be masked or de-emphasized.

What about finishing?
Davidson: We finalized everything in FCP X and exported a full, clean ProRes cut of the film. We then re-imported that and added grain, unsharp masks and a light vignette for a touch of cinematic texture. The credits were an evolving process, so we created an Apple Numbers document that was shared with my internal Magic Feather team, as well as Autumn and the producers. As the final document was adjusted and tweaked we would edit an Affinity Photo file that my editor AJ Paschall and I shared. We would then export a huge PNG file of the credits into FCP X and set position keyframes to animate the scroll. Any time a change was made we would just relink to the new PNG export and FCP X would automatically update the credits. Luckily, that was easy because we did that probably 50 times.

Lastly, our final delivery to the DCP company was a HEVC 10-bit 2K encode. I am a huge fan of HEVC. It’s a fantastic codec, but it does have a few caveats in that it takes forever to encode. Using Apple Compressor and a 10-core iMac Pro, it took approximately 13 hours. That said, it was worth it because the colors were accurately represented and gave us a file that 5.52GB versus 18GB or 20GB. That’s a hefty savings on size while also being an improvement in quality over H.264.

Photo Credit: Rich Marchewka

 


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