Tag Archives: Apple TV+

VFX supervisors talk Amazing Stories and Stargirl

By Iain Blair

Even if you don’t know who Crafty Apes are, you’ve definitely seen their visual effects work in movies such as Deadpool 2, La La Land, Captain America: Civil War and Little Women, and in episodics like Star Trek: Picard and Westworld. The full-service VFX company was founded by Chris LeDoux, Jason Sanford and Tim LeDoux and has locations in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Baton Rouge, Vancouver, Albuquerque and New York, and its roster of creative and production supervisors offers a full suite of services, including set supervision, VFX consultation, 2D compositing and CG animation, digital cosmetics, previsualization and look development.

Aldo Ruggiero

Recently, Crafty Apes worked on two high-profile projects — the reboot of Steven Spielberg’s classic TV series Amazing Stories for Apple TV+ and the Disney+’s Stargirl.

Let’s take a closer look at their work on both. First up is Amazing Stories and Crafty Apes VFX supervisor Aldo Ruggiero.

How many VFX did you have to create for the show?
The first season has five episodes, and we created VFX for two episodes — “The Heat” and “Dynoman and the Volt!!” I was on the set for the whole of those shoots, and we worked out all the challenges and problems we had to solve day by day. But it wasn’t like we got the plates and then figured out there was a problem. We were very well-prepared and we were all based in Atlanta where all the shooting took place, which was a big help. We worked very closely with Mark Stetson, who was the VFX supervisor for the whole show, and because they were shooting three shows at once, he couldn’t always be on set, so he wanted us there every day. Mark really inspired me just to take charge and to solve any problems and challenges.
What were the main challenges?
Of the two episodes, “Dynoman and the Volt!” was definitely the most challenging to do, as we had this entire rooftop sequence, and it was quite complicated, as half was done with bluescreen and half was done using a real roof. We had about 40 shots cutting back and forth between them, and we had to create this 360-degree environment that matched the real roof seamlessly. Doing scenes like that, with all the continuity involved and making it totally photo-real, is very challenging. To do a one-off shot is really easy compared with that, as it may take 20 man-days to do. But this took about 300 man-days to get it done — to match every detail exactly and all the color and so on. The work we did for the other episode, “The Heat,” was less challenging technically and more subtle. We did a lot of crowd replacement and a lot of clean-up, as Atlanta was doubling for other locations.

It’s been 35 years since the original Amazing Stories first aired. How involved was Spielberg, who also acts as EP on this?
He was more involved with the writing than the actual production, and I think the finale of “Dynoman and the Volt!!” was completely his idea. He wasn’t on the set, but he gave us some notes, which were very specific, very concise and pointed. And of course, visual effects and all the technology have advanced so much since then.

Gabriel Sanchez

What tools did you use?
We used Foundry Nuke for compositing and Autodesk Maya for 3D animation, plus a ton more. We finished all the work months ago, so I was happy to finally just see the finished result on TV. It turned out really well I think.

I spoke with VFX supervisor Gabriel Sanchez, a frequent collaborator with Wes Anderson. He talked about creating the VFX and the pipeline for Stargirl, the musical romantic drama about teenage angst and first love, based on the best-selling YA novel of the same name, and directed by Julia Hart (Fast Color).

How many VFX did you have to create for the film, and how closely did you work with Julia Hart?
While you usually meet the director in preproduction, I didn’t meet Julia until we got on set since I’d been so busy with other jobs. We did well over 200 shots at our offices in El Segundo, and we worked very closely together, especially in post. Originally, I was brought on board to be on the set to oversee all the crowd duplication for the football game, but once we got into post, it evolved into something much bigger and more complex.

Typically during bidding and even doing the script breakdown, we always know there’ll be invisible VFX, but you don’t know exactly what they’ll be until you get into post. So during preproduction on this, the big things we knew we’d have to do up front were the football and crowd scenes, maybe with some stunt work, and the CG pet rat.

What were the main challenges?
The football game was complex, because they wanted not just the crowd duplication, but also to create one long, seamless take because it’s the half-time performance. So we blocked it and did it in sections, trying to create the 360 so we could go around the band and so on.

The big challenge was then doing all those cuts together in a seamless take, but there were issues, like where the crowd would maybe creep in during the 360, or we’d have a shadow or we’d see the crane or a light. So that kind of set the tone, and we’d know what we had to clean up in post.

Another issue was a shot wherein it was raining and we had raindrops bouncing off a barn door onto the camera, which created this really weird long streak on the lens, and we had to remove that. We also had to change the façade of the school a bit, and we had a do a lot of continuity fixes. So once we began doing all that stuff, which is fairly normal in a movie, then it all evolved in post into a lot more complex and creative work.

What did it entail?
Sometimes, in terms of performance, you might like a take of how an actress speaks her lines technically, but prefer another take of how an actor replies or responds, so we had a lot of split screens to make the performance come together. We also had to re-adjust the timing of the actors’ lip movements sometimes to sync up with the audio, which they wanted to off-set. And there were VFX shots we created in post where we had no coverage.

For instance, Julia needed a bike in front of a garage for a shot that was never filmed, so I had to scan through everything, find footage, then basically create a matte painting of the garage and find a bike from another take, but it still didn’t quite work. In the end, I had to take the bike frame from one take, the wheels from another and then assemble it all. When Julia saw it, she said, ‘Perfect!’ That’s when she realized what was feasible with VFX, depending on the time and budget we had.

How many people were on your team?
I had about 10 artists and two teams. One worked on the big long seamless 360 shot, and then another team worked on all the other shots. I did most of the finishing of the long halftime show sequence on Autodesk Flame, with assistance from three other artists on Nuke, and I parceled out various bits to them — “take out this shadow,” “remove this lens flare” and so on — and did the complete assembly to make it feel seamless on Flame. I also did all the timing of the crowd plates on Flame. Ultimately, the whole job took us about two months to complete, and it was demanding but a lot of fun to work on.

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: Defending Jacob’s Jonathan Freeman

When the Apple TV+ crime drama Defending Jacob begins, viewers meet the seemingly perfect Barber family — assistant DA Andy, teacher Laurie and their teenage son, Jacob. Fairly quickly, things start falling apart after a local boy is found murdered in a park, and Jacob becomes the prime suspect.

Jonathan Freeman

Andy and Laurie both lose their jobs, and the family is ostracized as Jacob is presumed guilty before his trial even begins. The series, which stars Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery and Jaeden Martell, keeps viewers asking, “Did he or didn’t he?” until the very end.

For the most part, Defending Jacob takes place in winter, and the look of the show reflects that cold. To find out more about Defending Jacob’s look, we reached out to the show’s cinematographer, Jonathan Freeman, ASC, (Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire) to talk about working with the show’s director, Morten Tyldum, and showrunner Mark Bomback.

The show is set in an affluent suburb of Boston. Where did you shoot?
The series was shot in many of the locations that take place in the story. We were inspired by real locations and had tremendous support by our local crew. The lighting, grip and camera team worked extremely fast, often shooting the rehearsals. We rarely had to shoot a take again for technical reasons. I can honestly say it was one of the best production teams I’ve ever worked with. And our cast was phenomenal. Capturing performance was the most critical aspect of our storytelling.

What cameras did you use, and did you do camera tests?
We used the Panavision XL II. We also tested the Sony Venice and ARRI Alexa LF (both beautiful cameras as well), but the XL II provided the most resolution, which was needed for Apple’s delivery, once the anamorphic image was unsqueezed.

Can you talk about shooting with multiple cameras?
Working on television shows like Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire, we had to achieve quite a lot in a short period of time. On GoT we shot only 10-hour days with almost no overtime, so I got used to shooting with multiple cameras. That experience helped me when capturing the scenes in Defending Jacob, which is primarily a character-driven story.

It was important for director Morten Tyldum and I to have as many simultaneously running cameras as possible in order to capture performances. Shooting this without it feeling like conventional television was a challenge because we often wanted the camera to be physically close to the characters; finding a second camera angle when shooting a close-up of an actor was sometimes difficult.

When we were not able to get a strong camera angle for the B camera, they would either pick up a detail of that same performance or prep for the next setup. This leapfrogging helped us immensely, but one key motif we frequently used the B camera for was shooting close-ups, where the camera was just a few inches higher than the character’s eyeline. It created a very intimate feeling — almost as if we were sharing the character’s perspective.

Can you talk about lenses?
These internal close-ups became a critical element in our storytelling. For Morten and me, the optical quality of the glass, the lenses, was paramount. We chose to shoot with anamorphic lenses. Even though we composed for a 2:1 aspect ratio, we wanted the benefits anamorphic provides aesthetically.

Since so much of our storytelling would be close-ups of our actors, anamorphic served three critical aspects. The anamorphic bokeh (out of focus distortion) became a skewed backdrop, a subtle depiction of their deteriorating world. It also smoothed out the inherent crispness of digital cinematography. And, frankly, it just looked more cinematic.

Panavision was extremely helpful in getting us the G series, which are particularly beautiful and unique in character. And Apple was very supportive throughout the process, working with us to ensure we kept the aesthetic vision Morten and I had while also delivering the highest-quality image.

You brought up the characters’ perspectives earlier. Can you expand on that?
Because the story is such an internal piece, Morten wanted the audience to experience the story through the characters’ eyes. We became very committed to POV. We referenced films like Michael Clayton, Mystic River and the films of Bergman and Polanski.

For every scene, we determined whose perspective we wanted to take. So in a scene with Andy, we might have shot with the camera close to him and potentially wrapping around him, over his shoulder, to see the rest of the scene play out from his perspective. We would often take the same approach with Laurie. But the critical difference that Morten wanted to convey was how the audience saw Jacob.

As the story unfolded, we wanted to create an enigma around him, just as the characters in our story start to wonder whether Jacob is guilty or innocent. We maintained a less subjective perspective with Jacob by keeping the camera more distant. If we did occasionally come in for a close-up, it was to capture another beautifully ambiguous performance by our actor playing Jacob, Jaeden Martell. We hoped this approach translated a sense of uncertainty for the audience.

Can you talk about the look and tone?
Mark Bomback’s scripts were so compelling. I read almost the entire eight hours in one sitting. Even though it was set in contemporary Boston, in the most familiar settings, it had a somber, elegiac quality to it — like a requiem. For the look and tone, we were inspired by Nordic paintings and the films of Bergman — a cool, wintery chiaroscuro light. To amplify a sense of isolation, we framed our characters against windows showing the world they were increasingly being separated from. We also shot our characters through layers of glass or partially obscured them from view using architecture, emphasizing their prison.

What about the lighting?
We wanted to take a naturalistic approach but with a slightly heightened reality — slightly expressionistic. So a cold, rainy day might be pushed toward cyan a bit more and the color desaturated. And since much of our storytelling would be conveyed by the performances of our brilliant actors, it was important to capture performance but also reflect that tone in their close-ups. Light might fall off to shadow more dynamically, but it was always critical to retain detail in the eyes of the actors.

Defending Jacob was the first production where I shot almost entirely with LEDs. The advancement of LED lighting has been a game-changer for me. I often use mini dimmer boards, where I can adjust the key and fill light ratio on the fly. This was more challenging when shooting with tungsten — as the light dimmed, the color temperature shifted warmer. Before LED, I wasn’t able to do the dynamic adjustments that I can now. It also means that I feel more comfortable shooting a rehearsal wherein I can adjust to the actors’ positions immediately without disrupting the set by tweaking between takes.

ARRI SkyPanels were the workhorses for our lighting, often bouncing them through book lights or lighting sections of our night exteriors. We also used Litepanels through diffusion as key or fill in tight spaces. My gaffer, Josh Dreyfus, introduced me to Quasar tubes, which became very versatile. We would use them in the standard way one would use tubes for lighting, but Josh and our key grip, Woody Bell, built substantial softboxes made of eight-foot Quasars, which we used instead of 18K HMIs through diffusion in cherry pickers. They weighed slightly less, drew less power, were aesthetically more pleasing, and were fully RGB and dimmable.

Talk about the color workflow.
When setting a look, I like to keep the variables to a minimum. By limiting the LUTs, I feel it helps reduce inconsistency across the workflow. Luckily, I had a fantastic team of people who translated the look that we captured on set down to the final color. DIT Nic Pasquariello and I established a few basic LUTs during testing and tweaked them slightly on set from scene to scene.

Jonathan Freeman

One was slightly cool, another slightly warm, but we made them all denser than the standard Rec. 709. I prefer to have darker LUTs, like rating the ASA of a film stock lower to get more exposure in a negative. This ensures that we were capturing more detail in the shadows, so when we got to the final color, we could “print down” most of the image but still extract information we wanted through power windows.

The workflow was seamless between our on-set look and dailies, which was graded by Rob Bessette from Finish Post in Boston. Rob and Nic were in constant communication, ensuring what we were seeing on set was delivered accurately to the editorial department. They were extremely consistent, which helped us greatly when it came to doing the final color timing with Joe Finley at Chainsaw in LA, with whom I have worked over numerous projects, including Game of Thrones.

Morten has a very strong eye, so for him, having great latitude in the color grade was as important as shooting, which was another reason why a dense capture was critical. One addition to the look that Morten made in post was creating a subtle color adjustment to the cool look we established in the dailies. He added yellow to the highlights, which gave it a gritty, almost aged quality and provided a color contrast to the overall cool tone.

DP Chat: The Morning Show cinematographer Michael Grady

By Randi Altman

There have never been more options to stream content than right now. In addition to veterans Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, Disney+ and Apple TV+ have recently joined the fray.

In fact, not only did Apple TV+ just launch last month, its The Morning Show — about what goes on behind the scenes on, well, a morning show — has earned three Golden Globe nominations. The show stars Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell and Billy Crudup.

L-R: Mimi Leder and Michael Grady on set.

Veteran cinematographer Michael Grady (On the Basis of Sex, The Leftovers, Ozark) was called on by frequent collaborator and executive producer Mimi Leder to shoot the show. We reached out to Grady to find out more about the show and how he works.

How early did you get involved on The Morning Show, and what direction were you given about the shoot?
I have worked with Mimi Leder often over the last 15 years. We have done multiple projects, so we have a great shorthand. We were finishing a movie called On the Basis of Sex when she first mentioned The Morning Show. We spoke about the project even before she was certain that she would take it on as the executive producer and lead director. Ultimately, it is awesome to work with Mimi because she really creates an amazingly collaborative and open work environment. She really allows each person to bring something specific to a project while always staying at the wheel and gently guiding everyone toward a common goal. It’s a very different process from many directors. She knows how to maximize the talents of those around her while staying in control.

Mimi directed episodes 1 and 2. They are essentially the pilot and the setup of the show. After her two episodes, there was a very seasoned and talented group of directors that did episodes 3 through 9. On episode 4, I worked with Lynn Shelton, who is truly an amazing director working with actors. She is one of the loveliest and deeply collaborative directors that I have ever experienced.

For episode 6, I had the pleasure of working with Tucker Gates. Tucker is a brilliant veteran director that I immediately felt at ease with. I adored working with him. We really saw eye to eye on the common ground of filmmaking. He is a director that is experienced enough to really understand all aspects of filmmaking and respects each person on the crew and what they are also trying to achieve. I thought that he directed the most technically challenging episode created this season.

Next, I had another decorated director to make episode 6. Michelle MacLaren has made some great TV in the past, and she did it again on her episode of The Morning Show. We had worked together on The Leftovers, and I loved the work we did together on that show and again on this one. She is a visionary director. Extremely driven.

How would you describe the look of show?
Well, Mimi and I looked at a lot of films as reference before we began. We settled in on a clean, elegant, classical feel. The look of Michael Clayton, shot by Robert Elswit, was a key reference for the show. We used a motif of reflections: glass, mirrors, water, steel, hard surfaces, and … of course, moving images on monitors. Both natural and man-made reflections of our cast were all sign posts for framing the look of the show. It seemed an appropriately perfect motif for telling the story of how America’s morning news programs function and the underbelly that we attempt to investigate.

How did you work with the producers and the colorist to achieve the intended look?
Siggy Ferstl at Company 3 is our colorist. Siggy and I have collaborated on well over 10 movies for the last 15 years. I think he is, without question, the best colorist in the movie business.

The show has a rich, reserved elegance about it. On a project like this, Siggy needs very little guidance or direction from me. He easily understands the narrative and what the look and feel should be on a show. We talk, and it evolves. He is amazing at identifying what you have created in the shoot and then expanding upon those concepts in an attempt to enhance and solidify what you were attempting in image acquisition.

Where was it shot, and how long was the shoot?
We shot in LA on the Sony lot, all over LA and then also in New York City and Las Vegas. We shot for five months. The shoot ran November through the middle of May. I began prep a month or so before.

How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses for this project? Can you talk about camera tests?
We opted for the Panavision Millennium DXL2 with Primo 70 lenses — Apple’s specs required a 4K minimum. We tested a few systems and ended up choosing the Panavision for its awesome versatility. One camera does it all — Steadi, hand-held, studio, etc. At the time, there were few options for large format. There are many more now. We tested quite a few lenses with Jenn, Reese and Billy and ultimately chose the Primo 70s. We loved the clean but smooth look of these lenses. We shot them clean with zero filtration. I really liked the performance of the lenses for this show.

Can you talk about lighting?
Obviously, lighting is everything. Depth, contrast, color and the overall richness of the image are all achieved through lighting and art direction. Planning and previsualization are the key elements. We tried to take great care in each image, but this Panavision camera is groundbreaking in terms of shooting raw on the streets at night. The native 1600 ASA is insane. The images are so fast and clean, but our priority on this show was how the camera functioned within the realm of skin tones, texture, etc. We loved the natural look and feel of this camera and lens combo. The DXL really is an awesome addition to the large-format camera choices out there right now.

Any challenging scenes that you are particularly proud of or found most challenging?
We had an episode that took place in Las Vegas, and we shot for one long night. All mostly just grab and go. Very guerilla-style. Most of the sequences on Las Vegas Boulevard are all natural … no artificial light. Along the same lines as above, the camera performed on the streets of Las Vegas beautifully. The images were very clean, and the range and latitude of the DXL were amazing. I am shocked at how today’s cameras perform at low-light levels.

You’ve also shot feature films. Can you talk about differences in your process?
I don’t really see huge differences any more between features and high-end TV like this show. It used to be that features were given more time, and then more was expected. Well, you may still get more time, but everyone expects feature-quality, cinema-like images in dramatic television.

We have three huge international movie stars; I treat them no differently than if their images were to go up on the big screen. One-hour drama shows are the single most difficult and demanding projects to work on these days. They have all of the same demands as feature films, but they are created in a much tighter window. The expectations of quality seem very much the same today. Further, I think that the long grind of episodic TV also makes it tougher. It’s a long marathon, not a sprint.

Now for some more general questions …
How did you become interested in cinematography?
I was always an art student. I studied painting and drawing mostly. Later, I studied philosophy and business in college. I took private lessons from local artists growing up and also spent a lot of time playing sports (football). But I always loved movies. I found this to be the perfect job for me. It combines all of those elements. To me, telling stories with pictures requires the many skills that I learned from both sports and art.

What inspires you artistically? And how do you simultaneously stay on top of advancing technology that serves your vision?
I used to be inspired by photos and art and other cinematographers’ work on films and shows. Of course, those things still inspire me, but people inspire me so much more now. The inspiration of reality seems far more interesting to me than abstractions today. The real emotions of people are what actually inspires movies to attempt to be art. Emotions are what movies are truly about. How can an emotion inspire an image and how can an image inspire an emotion? That’s the deal.

Technology and I don’t really get along very well. To me, it’s always only about storytelling. Technology has never been all that interesting to me. I stay somewhat aware of the new toys, but I’m not very obsessed. My crew keeps me informed also.

That being said, how has technology changed the way you work?
The film-to-video transition was obviously the biggest technological change in my career. Today, I think that the insanely sensitive cameras and their high native ASA ratios are the biggest technological advantages now. These fast cameras allow us to work in such low-light levels that it just seems a lot easier than it was 20 years ago.

The incredible advances in LED lights have also really altered the work process. They are now so powerful in such a compact footprint that it is increasingly easier to get a decent image today. It’s all smaller and not so cumbersome.

What are some of your best practices or rules you try to follow on each job?
Over the years, I have gone from obsessed to maniacal to relaxed to obsessed again. Today, I am really trying to be more respectful of all the artists working on the project and to just not let it all get to me. The pressure of it affects people differently. I really try to stay more even and calm. It really is all about the crew. DPs just direct traffic. Point people in the right way and direct them. Don’t give them line readings, but direct them. You just must be confident in why you are directing them a certain way. If you don’t believe, neither will they. In the end, the best practice a DP can ever have is to always get the best crew possible. People make movies. You need good people. You are only as good as your crew. It really is that simple.

Explain your ideal collaboration with the director when setting the look of a project.
Mimi Leder is my best example of a collaborative director. We have a shared taste, and she really understands the value of a talented crew working together on a clearly defined common goal. The best directors communicate well and share enough information and ideas with the crew so that the crew can go and execute those ideas, and ultimately, expand upon them.

If a director clearly understands the story that they are telling, then they can eloquently communicate the concepts that will bring that story to life. The artists around them can expand a director’s ideas and solidify and embed them into the images. We all bring multiple levels of detail to the story. Hopefully, we are all inserting the same thematic ideas in our storytelling decisions. Mimi really allows her department heads to explore the story and bring their aesthetic sensibilities to the project. In the end, real collaboration is synonymous with good directing.

What’s your go-to gear? Things you can’t live without?
Lots of iced lattes and cold brew. I really don’t have a constant accessory, short of coffee.

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