By Randi Altman
London-based Hasraf “HaZ” Dulull is a man with a rich industry background. He started out in this business as a visual effects artist (The Dark Knight, Hellboy 2) and VFX supervisor (America: The Story of the US), and has expanded his resume in recent years to include producer, screenwriter and feature film director of his own projects (The Beyond, 2036 Origin Unknown).
Even more recently, he added television series director to that long list, thanks to his work on Disney Channel’s action-comedy miniseries Fast Layne, where he directed Episodes 1, 2, 7 and 8. He is currently developing a slate of feature and TV projects with his next film being a sci-fi/horror offering called Lunar, which is scheduled to start shooting later in the year.
Fast Layne focuses on a very bright 12-year-old girl named Layne and her eccentric neighbor, who find V.I.N., a self-driving and talking car in an abandoned shed. The car, the girls and a classmate with experience fixing cars embark on high-speed adventures while trying to figure out why V.I.N. was created, all the while tangling with bad guys and secret agents. You can watch Fast Layne on Sundays at 7:00pm ET/PT on Disney Channel.
We reached out to Dulull to find out more about establishing the look of the show, as well as his process, and how he uses his post background to inform his directing.
As the pilot director, what was your process in establishing the look for the show?
My process was very similar to how I worked on my feature films, since I come from a filmmaking-style that is very visually driven and hands-on. As a director, I would usually do lots of look development on my end anyway, which for Fast Layne involved creating style frames in Photoshop with direction notes and ideas. These eventually became a look bible for the show.
I worked closely with the Disney Channel’s development team and the showrunners Matt Dearborn, Tom Burkhard and Travis Braun (the creator of the show). We would discuss the ideas from the early style frames I had created and developed further, along with a set of rules of what the color palette should be, the graphics and even the style of framing with the key sequences.
By the end of the process, we firmly set the tone and mood of the show as having a saturated and punchy look, while feeling slick and cinematic with a lot of energy. Since we were shooting in Vancouver during the time of year that it gets overcast/grey very quickly, we made sure the art department had many colorful objects in the environment/sets to help — including the cast’s wardrobes.
How did you work with the DP and colorist? Who did the color, and do you know the tools they used?
We had a great DP — Neil Cervin and his team of camera ninjas! They are super-fast and so collaborative in pushing the shots further.
During the prep stage, I worked closely with Neil on the look of the show, and he was really into what we wanted to do something punchy, so he made sure we retained that throughout.
Our A camera was always the ARRI Alexa during the pilot shoot. We had a DIT, Jay Rego, who would quickly apply looks on the frames we had shot using DaVinci Resolve. During this on-set color process, we would see how far we could push it with the grade and what additional lighting we would need to achieve the look we were after. This really helped us nail the look very quickly and get it approved by the showrunners and the Disney Channel team on set before we continued shooting.
We then saved those looks as DPX frames along with CDLs (color decision lists) and sent those over to colorist Lionel Barton over at Vancouver’s OmniFilm Entertainment to work from in Blackmagic Resolve. This saved time in the grading process since that was done early during the shoot. Larry and his team at Omnifilm were taking the look we had set and pushing it further with each shot across all the episodes.
Can you talk about the car sequences? They are fun!
On the first days of prepping the show, I cut a mood reel of car chase action scenes, making clear that I love well-designed car chases and that we need to give the kids that cinematic experience they get in movies. Plus, Travis came from a NASCAR racing family, so he backed this up.
We designed the car action scenes to be fun and energetic with cool camera angles — not violent and frenetic (like the Bourne films). We were not doing crazy camera shake and motion blur action scenes; this is slick and cool action — we want the kids to experience those key action moments and go “wow.”
You are known for directing your own feature films. What was it like to direct your first TV series for a studio as big as Disney Channel?
Firstly, I’m incredibly grateful for Disney Channel giving me the opportunity to be on this journey. I have to thank Rafael Garcia at Disney Channel, who lobbied hard for me early in the process.
The first thing I quickly picked up and made sure stayed in my mind is that feature film is a director’s medium, whereas TV is a writer’s medium. So with that in mind, I ensured I collaborated very closely with Matt, Tom, and Travis on everything. Those guys were such a bundle of joy to work with. They were continually pushing the show with additional writing, and they supported me and the other directors (Joe Menendez, Rachel Leiterman) on our episodes throughout, making sure we hit those essential comedy and drama moments they wanted for the show. In fact, I would be in the same car as Matt (some days with Tom) to the shoot location every morning and back to our hotel every evening, going through things on the script, the shoot, etc. — this was a very tight collaboration, and I loved it.
The big difference between the feature films I had done and this TV series is the sheer amount of people involved from an executive and creative level. We had the writing team/execs/showrunners, then we had the executives at the Disney Channel, and we also had the team from the production company Omnifilm.
Therefore, we all had to be in sync with the vision and decisions taken. So once a decision was made, it was tough to go back and retract, so that ensured we were all making the right decisions throughout. I have to say the Fast Layne team were all very collaborative and respectful to each other, which made the “network studio” experience a very pleasant and creative one.
You are also credited as creative consultant on all the episodes? What did that entail?
I fell into that role almost automatically after shooting my first block (Episodes 1 and 2). I think it’s due to my filmmaking nature — being so hands-on technically and creatively and having that know-how from my previous projects on creating high-concept content (which usually involves a lot of visual effects) on a tight budget and schedule.
I had also done a lot of work in advance regarding how we would shoot stuff fast to allow things to be taken further in VFX. The network wanted to have someone that knew the show intimately to oversee that during the post production stage. So once production wrapped, I flew back home to London and continued working on the show by reviewing dailies, cuts and VFX shots and providing notes and creative solutions and being on conference calls with Disney and Omnifilm.
What tools were used for review and approval?
I used Evernote to keep all my notes neat and organized, and we would use Aspera for transferring files securely while Pix was the primary platform for reviewing cuts and shots.
Most of the time I would provide my notes visually rather than writing long emails, so a screen grab of the shot and then lots of arrows and annotations. I was in this role (while doing other stuff) right up to the end of the show’s post, so at the time of answering these questions I just signed off on the last episode grade (Episode 8) last week. I am now officially off the show.
You mostly shoot on Alexa, can you talk about what else you used during production?
Yes, we shot on Alexa with a variety of lenses at 3K to allow us to pan and scan later for HD deliverable. We also used GoPro and DJI Osmo’s (4K) for V.I.N.’s POV, and some DJI Drone shots too.
The biggest camera tech toy we had on the show was the Russian Arm! (It didn’t help that I keep quoting Micheal Bay during the prep of the car chase scenes). So somehow the production team managed to get us a Russian Arm for the day, and what we achieved with that was phenomenal.
We got so much bang for our buck. The team operating it, along with the stunt driving team, worked on films like Deadpool 2, so there was a moment during second unit when we almost forgot this was a kids’ show because it had the energy of an action feature film.
Stylistically, we always kept the camera moving, even during drama scenes — a slow move helped give perspective and depth. All the camera moves had to be slick; there was no handheld-style in this show.
For earlier scenes in Episode 1 with Layne, we used the idea of a single camera move/take, which was choreographed slickly and timed with precision. This was to reflect the perfect nature of Layne’s character being super-organized like a planner. Most of these camera moves were simply achieved with a dolly/track and slider. Later on in the the show, as Layne’s character breaks out of her comfort zone of being safe and organized, she begins to be more spontaneous, so the camera language reflected that too with more loose shots and whip pans.
You are a post/VFX guy at heart, how did that affect the way you directed Fast Layne?
Oh yes, it had a massive influence on the way I directed my episodes, but only from a technical side of things, not creatively in the way I worked with the actors.
With my VFX background, I had the instinct to be sensible with things, such as how to frame the shots to make VFX life smoother, where to stage my actors to avoid them crossing over tracing markers (to save money on paint-outs) and, of course, to use minimal green/blue screen for the car scenes.
I knew the spill coming from the greenscreens would be a nightmare in VFX, so to avoid that as much as I could, we shot driving plates and then used a lot of rear/side projections playing them back.
The decision to go that route was partly based on my experience as a compositor back in the day, crying in the late hours de-spilling greenscreen on reflection and dealing with horrible hair mattes. The only time we shot greenscreen was for scenes where the camera was moving around areas we didn’t have screen projection space for. We did shoot car greenscreen for some generic interior plates to allow us to do things later in post if we needed to create an insert shot with a new background.
Did you use previs?
As you know from our conversations about my previous projects, I love previs and find that previs can save so much money later on in production if used right.
So the car chase sequences, along with a big action scene in the series finale, had to be prevised, mainly because we had to end big but only had limited time to shoot. The previs was also instrumental with getting first VFX budgets in for the sequences and helping the 1st AD create the schedule.
Vancouver’s Atmosphere VFX was kind enough to let me come in and work closely with one of the previs artists to map out these key scenes in 3D, while I also did some previs myself using the assets they generated for me. The previs also dictated what lens we needed and how much real estate we needed on the location.
Being a former VFX supervisor certainly helped when communicating with the show’s on-set VFX supervisors Andrew Karr and Greg Behrens. We had a shorthand with each other, which sped things up massively on set with decisions made quickly regarding shooting plates to work with VFX later.
On set I would show the actors, via mockups and previs on my iPad, what was going to happen, why I wanted them to be staged in a certain way, and why they should look at this reference, etc. So I think that gave the actors (both the kids and adults) confidence in the scenes that involved VFX.
My personal approach to VFX is that it’s part of the arsenal of tools required to tell the story and, if possible, its best used in combination with the other crafts as opposed to just relying on it solely to achieve things.
Atmosphere created the visual effects?
Yes. I have been a fan of their work from the first season of The Expanse. They were the only main VFX house on the show and handled the CG V.I.N. shots, steering wheel transformation, and V.I.N.’s front grill, as well as other shots involving digital cloth, a robotic arm and a helicopter that appears in later episodes.
We also had a team of internal VFX artists (Mike Jackson and Richard Mintak) working for Omnifilm who were on throughout the post schedule. They handled the smaller VFX, compositing and graphics type shots, such as the windshield graphics, V.I.N.’s internal visual screen and other screen graphics as well as Layne’s Alonzo watch graphics.
How many VFX in total?
There were 1,197 VFX shots delivered, with Atmosphere VFX providing the main bulk of around 600, while the rest were graphics VFX shots done by our internal VFX team at Omnifilm.
Most of the visual effects involving CGI in the show involved V.I.N. doing cool things and his front grill communicating his emotion.
During my pitch for getting the job, I referenced my film 2036 Origin Unknown as an example of visual communication I had explored when it came to AI and characters.
From that we explored further and knew we wanted something with personality, but not with a face. We were very clear at the start that this was not going to be cartoony or gimmicky; it had to feel technologically cool, yet fresh and unique. We didn’t want to have the typical LED screen displaying graphics or emoji. Instead, we went for something resembling a pushpin cushion to give it a little organic touch — it showing that this was advanced tech, but used simple arrangements of pins moving in and out to create the shape of the eyes to communicate emotion.
It was important we went with a visual approach, which was simple to communicate with our core audience, for V.I.N. to come across visually as a personality with comedy beats. I remember being in my hotel room, drawing up emotive sketches on paper to see how simple we could get V.I.N. to be and then emailing them across to the writers for their thoughts.
Atmosphere spent some time developing R&D in Maya and Python scripting to create a system that could feed off the sound files to help generate the animation of the pins. The passes were rendered out of Maya and Vray and then composited with the final look established in Foundry Nuke.
To ensure we didn’t end up with a show where all the shots needed VFX, V.I.N.’s emotive visuals on the front grill can pop on and off when required. That meant that during the car chase sequences, V.I.N.’s face would only pop up when needed (like when it was angry as it was being chased or to show its competitive face during a race). Having this rule in place allowed us to stick with our budget and schedule as closely as possible without extreme overages (which tends to happen after editorial).
For the scenes that involved a CGI V.I.N., we shot the live-action plates with a special buggy developed exclusively for the show. This allowed our stunt driver to do cool car maneuvers and tricks, while also providing a body frame that had lots of space for rigging cameras to capturing the HDRI of the environment. It also had tracking markers across it to allow for full object tracking. (See before and after image of the buddy and CGI VIN).
The other big bulk of the VFX was all the UI/heads up display graphics on V.I.N.’s windshield, which was the way the car’s system displayed information. During Transformed mode, the windshield became a navigation system to help support Layne. It couldn’t be too crazy since we were dealing with pop-up windows overlaid so we can still see the driving action outside.
Most of those graphics were done by our internal team at Omnifilm, by graphic designers and compositors using Adobe After Effects with render passes such as wireframes of V.I.N. provided by Atmosphere. We wanted to show that the car was technologically cool without having to use any tech speak in the script. So we researched a lot into what automated cars are doing and what the developments are for the future and depicted this in the show.
Can you provide an example?
In Episode 1, when the windshield presents a trajectory of the jump across the construction bridge, a wireframe of the bridge based on its LIDAR scan capabilities was shown as a safe jump option. Another example was during the first big motorway chase sequence. V.I.N. recognized the bad guys chasing them in the SUV, so we featured facial recognition tracking technology to show how V.I.N. was able to read their vitals from this scan as being hostile.
We used this same grounded-tech approach to create the POV of the car, using the graphics style we had created for the windshield, to show what V.I.N. was seeing and thinking and that it was essentially a sentient being. This also helped, editorially, to mix things up visually during the drama scenes inside the car.
The show was shot in Vancouver, what was that like?
I love Vancouver!! There is such a buzz in that city, and that’s because you can feel the filmmaking vibe every day, due to the fact there were like 30 other shows happening at the same time we were shooting Fast Layne! I can’t wait to go back and shoot there again.
Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years.