Tag Archives: Amazon Studios

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. 

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. 

Beautiful Boy director Felix Van Groeningen

By Iain Blair

Belgian filmmaker Felix Van Groeningen — director of Amazon’s Beautiful Boy — may not be a household name in America, yet, but among cineastes he’s already a force to be reckoned with. His last film, Belgica, premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, where he won the Directing Award (Dramatic World Cinema). His The Broken Circle Breakdown earned a 2014 Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film and a César for Best Foreign Film.

L-R: Felix van Groeningen and Timothée Chalamet on set.

For his first English language film, Van Groeningen jumped right into the deep end when he took on Beautiful Boy, a harrowing family drama about drug addiction. Based on two memoirs — one from journalist David Sheff (Steve Carell) and one from his son, Nic (Timothée Chalamet) — it unsparingly chronicles the repeated relapses and the harsh reality that addiction is a disease that does not discriminate and can hit any family at any time.

To tell the story, Van Groeningen reunited with his longtime collaborators, cinematographer Ruben Impens and editor Nico Leunen. It marks their fifth film with the director.

I spoke with Van Groeningen about making the film and his process.

Why did you choose this for your first English language film?
It just sort of happened. I’d been thinking about making an English language film for quite a while but took my time in choosing the right project. After The Broken Circle Breakdown got an Oscar nomination, I got a lot of offers but never found the right one. I read some scripts that were very good, but I always asked myself, ‘Am I the best director for this?’ And I never felt I was, until  Beautiful Boy.

I read both books and immediately fell in love with the family. I could really relate to the father figure and to Nic, and all their struggles. It was also a big plus that Plan B — Brad Pitt’s company with producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, who did Moonlight and 12 Years a Slave — would be producing it. So it all came together.

So it all resonated with you?
It had a lot of elements and themes that really interest me, such as the passage of time, family dynamics and loss, as well as the illusion that we can control things. I’d explored these in my previous films, and I’d also dealt with addiction and substance abuse. Plus, the whole father-son element was also something I could really relate to — I lost my father when I was in my ‘20s, and in a way he still lives on in me through my movies.

So even though my family was very different, I knew this was the perfect project for me to spend several years on, which is what it took, since this was an epic journey. It’s a father trying to understand his son, and I knew right away it would be a big challenge. I also knew it would take a lot of work to combine the two books into one story and one film. I learned just how easy it is to relapse and about the whole cycle of shame that pulls you down.

Do you feel there’s far more responsibility as a filmmaker when a film is based on real people and real events?
I do, and I don’t. I really love the Sheffs, and that first love is genuine and everything comes from that. I met them very early on and really liked them, and they got involved and it happened very organically. They were both very open and honest and let me into their lives. We became friends, they met with the actors and really trusted me. But I had to make this film my own. This is my sixth film, and I’ve learned that at some point you always have to betray the original story and material in order to get a grip on it. You can’t be afraid of that.

Obviously, casting the right lead actors was crucial. What did Timothee and Steve bring to the roles?
Steve has this great Everyman relatability and sincerity, and while people tend to see him mainly as a comedic actor, he has this huge range. This role needed all that — from rage to despair to laughter. And Timothee is so charming and open, and you needed that so you could follow him on this very dark journey. He was always true to the character.

Where did you shoot?
We did some of the exteriors in the real locations in Northern California, along with bits in LA. We shot around Marin County and San Francisco, and at the real beach where David and Nic surfed, as well in and around Inverness, where they lived. And then we used sets for the interiors and shot them on stages in Hollywood. I don’t usually like to shoot on stages, but it worked out really well as we designed the rooms so we could take them apart and then put them back together in different ways.

Where did you post?
All in LA at The Post Group Production Suites. We did all the editing there. Nico was busy on another project when we began, so we started with another editor on location but not on set. It makes me feel a little insecure to look at what I’ve done, as I don’t do reshoots, and I like to go with my gut.  Nico came on board a bit later.

Do you like the post process?
I love post, but it’s also really the hardest part of any project since it’s where it all comes together. There’s always a phase where you’re really happy and super-excited about it, and then there’s always a phase where you panic and start re-thinking things and feeling that nothing is working. You have to let go. For years you’ve dreamed about what the movie could be, and now you have to realize, “This is it.” That’s scary.

As they say, you make a movie three times, and I really embrace post and all that goes with it, but sometimes you just can’t let go and you’re just too close to the movie. This is when you have to step back and leave for a week or two, then come back.

What were the big editing challenges?
You have to find the right balance between the two stories and points of view, and that was the big one — and in the script too. How long do you spend with each character separately? How much time together? It was tricky, finding the right rhythm and the balance.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
They’re both vital. Nico lays stuff out and helps me shape ideas, and then we finish it all together with the sound editor and sound designer Elmo Weber, and the mixers. Elmo and the sound effects editor Marc Glassman recorded a lot of material at all the locations — things like insects and birds and the wind in the trees and the sound of waves, so it was very naturalistic and very detailed.

We actually had a whole score for the film, but the songs were always so important to the story and a key part of the movie, as David and Nic loved music, but the score just wasn’t working. So Nico suggested having no score and using songs instead, and that worked far better. So we ended up using a mix of weird electronic music, sort of half-way between sound design and music. The songs were great, like the scene where Steve is singing to Nic and it breaks away into John Lennon singing. We also used tracks by Nirvana, Neil Young and Icelandic rockers Sigur Rós.

Felix van Groeningen and Steve Carell on set.

Were there any VFX?
Not many. Shade VFX did them, and it was mainly clean up. I really don’t know much about VFX since I’m far more interested in actors.

Where did you do the DI?
At Efilm with colorist Tim Stipan, who’s fantastic. I love the DI. I was there with Tim and our DP Ruben. It’s so fascinating to see your film get to the next level, and being able to refine the look.

Did it turn out the way you hoped?
It did. It’s been a long journey and I still need time to digest it.

What’s next?
I’ve got several projects I’m developing but I’ll take my time. I just became a father and I like to focus on one thing at a time.


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.

Photo: Mike Scott

Behind the Title: Flaunt executive producer Andrew Pearce

NAME: Andrew Pearce

COMPANY: Flaunt Productions (@flauntanimation)

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
Flaunt is a Scottish studio that creates high-quality animation for features, TV, commercials and games. Flaunt is part of the Axis group, which is made up of three collaborating studios with distinct goals, strategies and talent bases.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
Executive Producer

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
As EP, I’m one of the first points of contact in the studio. That means attending events, making new relationships, talking to clients and creatives and pitching and planning projects. My next trip is to Kidscreen Miami in February.

The EPs take the “thousand-foot-view” of projects. First, that’s about helping to assemble the right team and working with the director to develop creative and story. Then it’s about making a solid plan. When a producer takes over, it’s about ensuring that we’re exceeding clients’ expectations, and following the studio’s general strategy.

PHOTO: MIKE SCOTT

Flaunt headquarters. Photo: Mike Scott

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE THE MOST ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
How much we have to adapt to the changing market. There are no right answers to where we place our efforts; it’s a tricky combination of research, intuition, creativity and strategy.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
The magic part! When the team comes up with something brilliant. Everyone knows when you’ve got something special, be that a design, a piece of music, an iconic performance or a beautiful shot.

I would also say the sense of excitement: since starting at Axis seven years ago, there has always been a feeling that anything is possible. The founders continue to be supportive of artists and producers who’re keen to push the envelope.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
So much to do, so little time. We see a million opportunities, both in creative and market terms. Our main impediment to trying everything is lack of time and people to explore.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE TIME OF THE DAY?
Random meeting time! There is no set time, but it’s often at the lunch table. We have around 150 people in the studio right now and are planning to peak at 200 mid-year. So there are lots of opportunities for meeting interesting folks and hearing new things.

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
A lot of our games clients have great companies — I would love to be part of the casual games explosion.

HOW EARLY ON DID YOU KNOW THIS WOULD BE YOUR PATH?
I think that for the most part, the profession chose me. I’ve always been keen on business development and strategy. I guess after about three years in the industry my path became clear.

Lost in Oz

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS YOU HAVE WORKED ON?
We’ve just wrapped up a second feature for Mattel’s Monster High brand, and we are looking forward to the release in spring. Season One of Amazon Studios’ series Lost in Oz is in production now, for which we’re taking care of design and art direction. Our current production is a super-high quality series, about 80 minutes, due for release in summer. We are doing design and animation for the BBC show Dixi and television commercials for Goodgame’s Goodgame Empire.

WHAT IS THE PROJECT THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
Almost every project has some aspect that stood out, but I’d pick our Monster High features. We worked closely with Mattel to create a fresh, bold interpretations of the new toy line. The challenge was in retaining the iconic look of the characters, while updating them to better suit animation.

Mattel was aligned with our goal to create fun stories, packed with humor and charm. The characters weren’t just dolls; we created real, breathing characters that could connect emotionally with kids. Watch out for our making-of video later this month.

Monsters High

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
I’ll go for three research tools here, all of which I use daily: LinkedIn, IMDB and Vimeo.

WHAT SOCIAL MEDIA CHANNELS DO YOU FOLLOW?
Vimeo, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Twitter.

DO YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC WHILE YOU WORK?
If I really have to concentrate, I listen to classical music on headphones.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
Stupid fun projects that have no deadlines or client expectations — the last one was a wall-mounted Hot Wheels track for my four-year-old, which wraps around his bedroom. I play on it a lot more than he does.

What it sounds like when Good Girls Revolt for Amazon Studios

By Jennifer Walden

“Girls do not do rewrites,” says Jim Belushi’s character, Wick McFadden, in Amazon Studios’ series Good Girls Revolt. It’s 1969, and he’s the national editor at News of the Week, a fictional news magazine based in New York City. He’s confronting the new researcher Nora Ephron (Grace Gummer) who claims credit for a story that Wick has just praised in front of the entire newsroom staff. The trouble is it’s 1969 and women aren’t writers; they’re only “researchers” following leads and gathering facts for the male writers.

When Nora’s writer drops the ball by delivering a boring courtroom story, she rewrites it as an insightful articulation of the country’s cultural climate. “If copy is good, it’s good,” she argues to Wick, testing the old conventions of workplace gender-bias. Wick tells her not to make waves, but it’s too late. Nora’s actions set in motion an unstoppable wave of change.

While the series is set in New York City, it was shot in Los Angeles. The newsroom they constructed had an open floor plan with a bi-level design. The girls are located in “the pit” area downstairs from the male writers. The newsroom production set was hollow, which caused an issue with the actors’ footsteps that were recorded on the production tracks, explains supervising sound editor Peter Austin. “The set was not solid. It was built on a platform, so we had a lot of boomy production footsteps to work around. That was one of the big dialogue issues. We tried not to loop too much, so we did a lot of specific dialogue work to clean up all of those newsroom scenes,” he says.

The main character Patti Robinson (Genevieve Angelson) was particularly challenging because of her signature leather riding boots. “We wanted to have an interesting sound for her boots, and the production footsteps were just useless. So we did a lot of experimenting on the Foley stage,” says Austin, who worked with Foley artists Laura Macias and Sharon Michaels to find the right sound. All the post sound work — sound editorial, Foley, ADR, loop group, and final mix was handled at Westwind Media in Burbank, under the guidance of post producer Cindy Kerber.

Austin and dialog editor Sean Massey made every effort to save production dialog when possible and to keep the total ADR to a minimum. Still, the newsroom environment and several busy street scenes proved challenging, especially when the characters were engaged in confidential whispers. Fortunately, “the set mixer Joe Foglia was terrific,” says Austin. “He captured some great tracks despite all these issues, and for that we’re very thankful!”

The Newsroom
The newsroom acts as another character in Good Girls Revolt. It has its own life and energy. Austin and sound effects editor Steve Urban built rich backgrounds with tactile sounds, like typewriters clacking and dinging, the sound of rotary phones with whirring dials and bell-style ringers, the sound of papers shuffling and pencils scratching. They pulled effects from Austin’s personal sound library, from commercial sound libraries like Sound Ideas, and had the Foley artists create an array of period-appropriate sounds.

Loop group coordinator Julie Falls researched and recorded walla that contained period appropriate colloquialisms, which Austin used to add even more depth and texture to the backgrounds. The lively backgrounds helped to hide some dialogue flaws and helped to blend in the ADR. “Executive producer/series creator Dana Calvo actually worked in an environment like this and so she had very definite ideas about how it would sound, particularly the relentlessness of the newsroom,” explains Austin. “Dana had strong ideas about the newsroom being a character in itself. We followed her guide and wanted to support the scenes and communicate what the girls were going through — how they’re trying to break through this male-dominated barrier.”

Austin and Urban also used the backgrounds to reinforce the difference between the hectic state of “the pit” and the more mellow writers’ area. Austin says, “The girls’ area, the pit, sounds a little more shrill. We pitched up the phone’s a little bit, and made it feel more chaotic. The men’s raised area feels less strident. This was subtle, but I think it helps to set the tone that these girls were ‘in the pit’ so to speak.”

The busy backgrounds posed their own challenge too. When the characters are quiet, the room still had to feel frenetic but it couldn’t swallow up their lines. “That was a delicate balance. You have characters who are talking low and you have this energy that you try to create on the set. That’s always a dance you have to figure out,” says Austin. “The whole anarchy of the newsroom was key to the story. It creates a good contrast for some of the other scenes where the characters’ private lives were explored.”

Peter Austin

The heartbeat of the newsroom is the teletype machines that fire off stories, which in turn set the newsroom in motion. Austin reports the teletype sound they used was captured from a working teletype machine they actually had on set. “They had an authentic teletype from that period, so we recorded that and augmented it with other sounds. Since that was a key motif in the show, we actually sweetened the teletype with other sounds, like machine guns for example, to give it a boost every now and then when it was a key element in the scene.”

Austin and Urban also built rich backgrounds for the exterior city shots. In the series opener, archival footage of New York City circa 1969 paints the picture of a rumbling city, moved by diesel-powered buses and trains, and hulking cars. That footage cuts to shots of war protestors and police lining the sidewalk. Their discontented shouts break through the city’s continuous din. “We did a lot of texturing with loop group for the protestors,” says Austin. He’s worked on several period projects over years, and has amassed a collection of old vehicle recordings that they used to build the street sounds on Good Girls Revolt. “I’ve collected a ton of NYC sounds over the years. New York in that time definitely has a different sound than it does today. It’s very distinct. We wanted to sell New York of that time.”

Sound Design
Good Girls Revolt is a dialogue-driven show but it did provide Austin with several opportunities to use subjective sound design to pull the audience into a character’s experience. The most fun scene for Austin was in Episode 5 “The Year-Ender” in which several newsroom researchers consume LSD at a party. As the scene progresses, the characters’ perspectives become warped. Austin notes they created an altered state by slowing down and pitching down sections of the loop group using Revoice Pro by Synchro Arts. They also used Avid’s D-Verb to distort and diffuse selected sounds.

Good Girls Revolt“We got subjective by smearing different elements at different times. The regular sound would disappear and the music would dominate for a while and then that would smear out,” describes Austin. They also used breathing sounds to draw in the viewer. “This one character, Diane (Hannah Barefoot), has a bad experience. She’s crawling along the hallway and we hear her breathing while the rest of the sound slurs out in the background. We build up to her freaking out and falling down the stairs.”

Austin and Urban did their design and preliminary sound treatments in Pro Tools 12 and then handed it off to sound effects re-recording mixer Derek Marcil, who polished the final sound. Marcil was joined by dialog/music re-recording mixer David Raines on Stage 1 at Westwind. Together they mixed the series in 5.1 on an Avid ICON D-Control console. “Everyone on the show was very supportive, and we had a lot of creative freedom to do our thing,” concludes Austin.

Creating new worlds for Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle

Zoic Studios used visual effects to recreate occupied New York and San Francisco.

By Randi Altman

What if Germany and Japan had won World War II? What would the world look like? That is the premise of Philip K. Dick’s 1963 novel and Amazon’s series, The Man in the High Castle, which is currently gearing up for its second season premiere in December.

The Man in the High Castle features familiar landmarks with unfamiliar touches. For example, New York’s Time Square has its typical billboards, but sprinkled in are giant swastika banners, images of Hitler and a bizarro American flag, whose blue stripes have been replaced with yet another swastika. San Francisco, and the entire West Coast, is now under Japanese rule, complete with Japanese architecture and cultural influences. It’s actually quite chilling.

Jeff

Jeff Baksinski

Helping to create these “new” worlds was Zoic Studios, whose team received one of the show’s four Emmy nods for its visual effects work. That team was led by visual effects supervisor Jeff Baksinski.

Zoic’s path to getting the VFX gig was a bit different than most. Instead of waiting to be called for a bid, they got aggressive… in the best possible way. “Both myself and another supervisor here, Todd Shifflett, had read Dick’s book, and we really wanted this project.”

They began with some concept stills and bouncing ideas off each other of what a German-occupied New York would look like. One of Zoic’s producers saw what they were up to and helped secure some money for a real test. “Todd found a bunch of late ‘50s/early 60’s airline commercials about traveling to New York, and strung it together as one piece. Then we added various Nazi banners, swastikas and statues. Our commercial features a pullback from a 1960s-era TV. Then we pull back to reveal a New York penthouse with a Nazi solider standing at the window. The commercial’s very static-y and beat up, but as we pull back out the window, we have a very high-resolution version of Nazi New York.”

And that, my friends, is how they got the show. Let’s find out more from Baksinski…

The Man in the High Castle is an Amazon show. Does the workflow differ from traditional broadcast shows?
Yes. For example, on our network TV shows, typically you’ll get a script each week, you’ll break it down and maybe have 10 days worth of post to execute the visual effects. Amazon and Netflix shows are different. They have a good idea of where their season is going, so you can start building assets well in advance.

High Castle’s version of the Brooklyn Bridge features a Nazi/American flag.

When we did the pilot, we were already building assets while I was going out to set. We were building San Francisco’s Hirohito Airport, the airplane that featured heavily in a few episodes and the cities of New York and San Francisco — a lot of that started before we ever shot a single frame.

It’s a whole new world with the streaming channels.
Everybody does it a little bit differently. Right now when we work on Netflix shows, we are working in shooting order, episode 105, 106, 107, etc., but we have the flexibility to say, “Okay, that one’s going to push longer because it’s more effects-heavy. We’re going to need four weeks on that episode and only two on this other one.” It’s very different than normal episodic TV.

Do you have a preference?
At the moment, my preference is for the online shows. I come from a features background where we had much longer schedules. Even worse, I worked in the days where movies had a year-and-a-half worth of schedule to do their visual effects. That was a different era. When I came into television, I had never seen anything this fast in my life. TV has a super quick turnaround, and obviously audiences have gotten smarter and smarter and want better and better work; television is definitely pushing closer to a features-type look.

Assuming you get more time with the pilots?
I love pilots. You get a big chunk of the story going, and a longer post schedule — six to eight weeks. We had about six weeks on Man in the High Castle, which is a good amount of time to ask, “What does this world look like, and what do they expect? In the case of High Castle, it was really about building a world. We were never going to create a giant robot. It was about how do we do make the world interesting and support our actors and story? You need time to do that.

You were creating a world that doesn’t exist, but also a period piece that takes place in the early ‘60s. Can you talk about that?
We started with what the normal versions of New York and San Francisco looked like in the ‘60s. We did a lot of sketch work, some simple modeling and planning. The next step was what would New York look like if Germany had taken over, and how would San Francisco be different under the influence of Japan?

Zoic added a Japanese feel to San Francisco streets and buildings.

In the case of San Francisco, we found areas in other countries that have heavy Japanese populations and how they influence the architecture —so buildings that were initially built by somebody else and then altered for a Japanese feel. We used a lot of that for what you see in the San Francisco shots.

What about New York?
That was a little bit tougher, because if you’re going to reference back to Germany during the war, you have propaganda signs, but our story takes place in 1962, so you’ve got some 17 years there where the world has gotten used to this German and Nazi influence. So while those signs do exist, we scaled back and added normal signs with German names.

In terms of the architecture, we took some buildings down and put new ones in place. You’ll notice that in our Times Square, traffic doesn’t move as it does in real life. We altered the roads to show how traffic would move if somebody eliminated some buildings and put cross-traffic in.

You also added a little bit of German efficiency to some scenes?
Absolutely. It’s funny… in the show’s New York there are long lines of people waiting to get into various restaurants and stores, and it’s all very regimented and controlled. Compare that to San Francisco where we have people milling about everywhere and it’s overcrowded with a lot of randomness.

How much of what you guys did were matte paintings, and could those be reused?
We use a few different types of matte paintings. We have the Rocky Mountains, for example, in the Neutral Zone. Those are a series of matte paintings we did from different angles that show mountains, trees and rivers. That is reusable for the most part.

Other matte paintings are very specific. For example, in the alley outside of Frank’s apartment, you see clothes hanging out to dry, and buildings all the way down the alleyway that lead to this very crowded-looking city. Those matte paintings are shot-specific.

Then we use matte paintings to show things far off in the distance to cut off the CG. Our New York is maybe four square city blocks around in every direction. When we get down to that fourth block, we started using old film tricks — what they used to do on studio lots, where you start curving the roads, dead-ending, or pinching the roads together. There is no way we could build 30 blocks of CG in every direction. I just can’t get there, so we started curving the CG and doing little tricks so the viewer can’t tell the difference.

What was the most challenging type of effects you created for the show? Which shots are you most proud of?
We are most proud of the Hirohito Airport and the V9 rocket plane. What most people don’t realize is that there’s actually nothing there — we weren’t at a real airport and there’s no plane for the actors to interact with. The actors are literally standing on a giant set of grip pipe and crates and walking down a set of stairs. That plane looks very realistic, even super close-up. You see every bolt and hinge and everything as the actors walk out. The monorail and embassy are also cool.

What do you call on in terms of tools?
We use Maya for modeling and lighting environments and for any animation work, such as a plane flying or the cars driving. There is a plug-in for Maya called Miarmy that we used to create CG people walking around in backgrounds. Some of those shots have hundreds of extras, but it still felt a little bit thin, so we were used CG people to fill in the gaps.

What about compositing?
It’s all Nuke. A lot of our environments are combinations of Photoshop and Nuke or projections onto geometry. Nuke will actually let you use geometry and projections in 3D inside of the compositing package, so some of our compositors are doing environment work as well.

Did you do a lot of greenscreen work?
We didn’t do any on the pilot, but did on the following episodes. We decided to go all roto on the pilot because the show has such a unique lighting set-up — the way the DP wanted to light that show — that green would have completely ruined it. This is abnormal for visual effects, where everyone’s always greenscreening.

street-before-nyRoto is such a painstaking process.
Absolutely. Our DP Jim Hawkinson was coming off of Hannibal at the time. DPs are always super wary of visual effects supervisors because when you come on the set you’re immediately the enemy; you’re about to tell them how to screw up all their lighting (smiles).

He said very clearly, “This is how I like to use light, and these are the paintings and the artwork.” This is the stuff I really enjoy. Between talking to him and director David Semel, and knowing that it was an RSA project, your brain immediately starts going to things like Blade Runner. You’re just listening to the conversations. It’s like, “Oh, this is not straightforward. They’re going to have a very contrast-y, smoky look to this show.”

We did use greenscreen on the rest of the episodes because we had less time. So out of necessity we used green.

What about rendering?
We use V-Ray, which is a global illumination renderer. We’d go out and take HDR images of the entire area for lighting and capture all of the DPs lights — that’s what’s most important to me. The DP set up his lights for a reason. I want to capture as much of his lighting as humanly possible so when I need to add a building or car into the shot, I’m using his lighting to light it.

It’s a starting point because you usually build a little bit on top of that, but that’s typically what we do. We get our HDRs, we bring them into Maya, we light the scene inside of Maya, then we render through V-Ray, and it all gets composited together.