Tag Archives: George Miller

The A-List: Director George Miller talks ‘Fury Road,’ Oscar season

By Iain Blair

The Oscar-winning writer/director/producer George Miller was instrumental in introducing the new wave of revved-up Aussie cinema to the world stage thanks to his seminal and highly influential apocalyptic road trilogy, Mad Max. But when the first in the series roared onto screens in the late seventies, it wasn’t just a fresh blast of non-stop action reeking of hot engines and even hotter desert winds from down under. Miller’s assured debut, a bleak vision of the future, essentially rewrote the book on how to make a successful low-budget indie action film (for 20 years it held the record as the highest profit-to-cost ratio of any film).

He then went on to create two more much-beloved franchises — Babe and Happy Feet — which did for talking animals what Mad Max did for young up-and-comer Mel Gibson.

Miller, whose diverse credits include directing The Witches of Eastwick, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Lorenzo’s Oil and producing Dead Calm, the thriller that jump-started Nicole Kidman’s career, was in LA recently to talk about Warner Bros. Mad Max: Fury Road. The $375 million-grossing smash is the fourth in the blockbuster series, which left off with Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, released exactly 30 years ago.

George Miller and writer Iain Blair

George Miller and writer Iain Blair

Starring Tom Hardy in the iconic Gibson role and Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa, the film was shot by John Seale, the acclaimed Aussie cinematographer who won the Oscar for The English Patient and whose credits include Cold Mountain, The Perfect Storm, Rain Man, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Lorenzo’s Oil with Miller. It was the DP’s first digital film and first time shooting with Arri Alexas (See our coverage on Seale shooting Fury Road here).

Over a nice meal, I spoke with Miller about making the film, posting Fury Road and the Oscars.

We’re heading into awards season. You’ve been nominated for three Oscars and you’ve won once, for Happy Feet. How important are they to you?
It’s a mistake to give it too much thought. It’s enough to just make a film that resonates with audiences, and I used to feel awards just aren’t important, but I’ve come to realize that culturally successful people — whether they’re directors or artists or musicians and so on — have the ability to analyze and reinforce what works. It’s always easy to see why something doesn’t work, but it’s far harder to pin down exactly why it works.

Is it true that you spent three years building 3D rigs from scratch to shoot Fury Road, and then at the last moment decided that the film would be shot in 2D instead?
We started off shooting native 3D with them, but suddenly we began to doubt that they’d hold up in all the heat and dust where we were shooting —the Namibian desert — as we only had six. And by then, stereo conversion was getting really good, so we decided to go digital with the Alexas, which were also supplemented with a Canon EOS 5D Mark 11 and an Olympus P5 used as “crash” cameras in some action sequences.

ONE TWO

Seale told me that — amazingly, given the non-stop action — the film was predominantly a one-camera shoot.
Yeah. Roman Polanski said, “At any given moment, there’s only one perfect camera position,” and I agree. So when I went into animation with the Happy Feet movies, it became really obvious, as you can take exactly the same performance, same set and so on, and by shifting the camera, the perspective and cutting pattern, you can change a scene completely. So yes, I’m a one-camera filmmaker in that sense.

Do you like the post process?
Very much. It’s where you confront your mistakes and where you can work around them, provided you have a good editor. We posted in Sydney in my offices, in this deco theatre, The Metro, and it took over a year. Then we did some extra shooting and the bookends to the movie, back in Australia.

The film was edited by your wife, Margaret Sixel, who also cut Happy Feet. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked.
We shot for nine months and she was back in Sydney, getting massive amounts of footage. Initially she didn’t want to do it because she’d never cut an action film before. I told her that was a great reason to do it since she wouldn’t be following all the clichés and tropes and style of those movies.

Charlize Theron and George Miller on set

Charlize Theron and George Miller on set

I’d seen her work on documentaries, where she’d taken some very bland footage and shaped it into a very strong narrative. She has this great sense of structure and causality of one shot to the next, either spatially or thematically — there’s some connection.

It struck me that this is essentially a silent movie, but with great sound.
That’s exactly what I set out to make, and we did the sound mix, the DI and post-viz as part of editorial, and did a lot of early sound work in Sydney, but then we ended up on the lot at Warners here in LA, and did the final Atmos mix here, too, with a great team: re-recording mixers Chris Jenkins and Gregg Rudloff.

Obviously, a lot of the action effects were shot in-camera, but there’s also huge number of visual effects shots in the film. How many are there?
There are over 2,800 shots in the movie — which is a lot — and I’d say over 2,000 have some VFX elements. Andrew Jackson, who did 300, was the VFX supervisor. A lot of that was done as post-viz — so the team did simple comps or simple animation, erasures and so on, and if they were good enough, we didn’t pass them on to the VFX houses… Method or Iloura in Sydney.

You also brought Eric Whipp, a DI colorist from Toronto who did the Happy Feet films, down to work on it full-time?
Yeah, and in the DI he was really pushing the Baselights to do stuff like sky replacements. The problem was, we shot for nearly 140 days but the story happens over three days, so you needed consistency in the skies, and he was able to do all that very quickly and cheaply in the DI. We did a preliminary DI on the set and were grading our dailies, and we also had our own Baselights in the editing suites in Sydney.

All that was so important — having postviz, editorial and Baselight all working together. And often Margaret or her assistants would comp performances in editorial, so there’s a lot of plasticity between the cuts now that we didn’t have in the past when it was all celluloid. (See our interview with colorist Eric Whipp here)

Digital, especially in post, must really suit your style of filmmaking.
Completely. I learned so much from doing animation in the Babe and Happy Feet movies, and now nearly every film involves animation and CGI to some extent. The biggest advantage of digital on this film was safety — you just erase harnesses, wires and so on. And also being able to erase tire marks from previous takes. That was huge for us!

FURY ROAD THREE

The film has a very gritty and over-saturated look. Was that all done in post or was it a combination?
It was a combination of design and post. We designed it to be pretty monochrome. In a way it’s all variations of reds, browns, yellows and very little color.

There are all these rumors you’re going to shoot Mad Max: Wasteland next. True?
(Laughs) All I can say is it’s not even the real title, but we are definitely talking about it.

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

George Miller photos credit: Jasin Boland

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ colorist Eric Whipp gets graphic

How collaboration between the DP, VFX and color was key to the film’s look

By Randi Altman

Warner Bros.’ Mad Max: Fury Road is quite a ride, with intense action from start to finish, a ton of visual effects and some pretty unforgiving and sand-filled locations and weather.

While this is a continuation of the Mad Max films of the past, you might notice a very different graphic look, and that was by design. Aussie director George Miller, who helmed the first three Mad Max features — in 1979, 1981 and 1985 — wanted this new film to have the feel of no other post-apocalyptic film that had come before it, including his own.

As part of this process, he called on veteran cinematographer John Seale, ASC, who worked on his first digital film via the Arri Alexa. You can see a story we ran on Seale’s experience on set and working with Miller here.

Next was colorist Eric Whipp of Toronto’s Alter Ego (@alteregotoronto), who worked with Miller on Happy Feet and Happy Feet Two, and the two kept in touch. When it came time for Fury Road, the director gave him a call to continue a conversation that actually began while they were working on Happy Feet Two in 2011. “We were doing a lot of tricky things for animation on that one, and George wanted to know how much of this intricate work could be done on a live-action film.”

For Fury Road, Whipp says the production was hard — they shot in Namibia, home to frequent sandstorms and intense heat, which required special precautions by the camera crew. “Because of these challenges, George was focused mainly on the production,” explains Whipp. “It wasn’t until we got to the editing stage that we started to turn some attention to post production and color.”

Thanks to early conversations with Whipp, Miller knew what he could get away with on set — he knew he could push and pull and change things. “He knows the power of what we can do in the color suite,” explains Whipp. “So it was more about forging ahead, shooting and we’ll get to post when we get to it.

The idea of foraging ahead with the shoot must have challenging for a DP, especially one used to working with film?
John, of course, likes beautiful images, but George was telling him not to worry too much about lighting — he was constantly tapping him on the shoulder and saying, “It’s okay, John. It’ll be fine.” (In the interview with him on postPerspective.com Seale explains it this way: “Our edict was ‘just shoot it.’ Continuity of light wasn’t really a question. We knew that the film would be cut very quickly, so there wouldn’t be time to analyze every shot.)

Fury Road was shot over six months and in all kinds of weather, but it is cut so very quickly (by editor Margaret Sixel) that George wasn’t concerned about cutting from a cloudy day to a sunny day because it would be dealt with in post. That was all new to John because this was his first digital film and first time shooting with the Alexa.

You worked with John Seale and the VFX supervisor closely?
Yes.  John, myself, and Andrew Jackson (Happy Feet Two), the visual effects supervisor, were involved early on. There were many people involved early and collaborating. That was a big part of this film: the collaboration between the cinematography, visual effects, editing and color.

The DP, color and VFX worked closely to get the best looks possible.

That collaboration is so important for a film like this because you’re never going to capture all of the image in-camera. You’re going to need visual effects — there’s going to be background replacements, wire removal, there’s going to be changes to the images. Then in the color grading, we’re going to try and enhance it and make it more graphic.

Even editorial played a big role in the look of the film and the collaboration. It’s not really one person responsible for the look of a film anymore, which is the way it should be.

When it came time to talk about the look George wanted from the color, how was that expressed to you?
People were experimenting with looks during the production. Even I took some footage and started experimenting. There was a still photographer on set who shot these fantastic images, but they are a completely different look to the actual film. The still photography had a very desaturated, bleached look, which seemed to be the most natural way to go for a film like this, but ultimately that wasn’t the look George wanted.

FURY ROAD     THREE
Stills like these, captured on set by photog Jasin Boland, are beautiful featuring a desaturated and bleached look. Miller instead wanted a graphic novel look for the film.

What did he want from the look?
Well, in February 2014, I traveled from Toronto, where I live, to Sydney and sat with George in a grading suite. We started by looking at the production stills on the wall and he said, “There are some great qualities about these images; they’ve got great contrast and nice grit, but I don’t want to go desaturated. Every post-apocalyptic film for the last 30 years has gone with a desaturated, bleached look. Let’s do the opposite. I want to go saturated and graphic.”

That was essentially the brief. Other than that, it was, “See what works. Let’s experiment and try to come up with different looks to keep the film visually interesting.”

The mantra for Whipp was “think graphic novel.”

You, together with Miller?
Yes, we started developing looks, tried a few scenes and worked our way through the film. The biggest challenge was there is about a half-hour of day-for-night footage that we knew that was going to be tricky and time consuming to grade — it involved a lot of intricate work. We had to develop that look first because it was going to take a couple of months of color grading work to get that scene in shape. We sat down, we worked out a few ideas and then I went back to Toronto with the footage and started working on my own, in my spare time between commercial jobs, over the next six to eight months.

How would you work with Miller on approvals?
We would do live remote sessions with George and beam him the live color grade from Toronto to Sydney. He would sit in the theater in Sydney and we would interactively grade.

For the most part, I was just trying to get the film in shape by myself because it required detailed work to even out all the different days. Some are dusty, some are cloudy and some are sunny. It was about trying to get the looks across all the scenes and get it all in shape. With George’s input on these remote sessions, we would refine the look a bit more. Then in November 2014, I went back to Sydney. George and I sat together for about five weeks. That’s where we went through the film and started refining it.

Were you working out of a facility in Sydney?
We had a couple of FilmLight Baselights set up at George’s production house in Sydney, Kennedy Miller Mitchell. We set up a primary Baselight and a projector, and some support Baselights. We had a great DI team headed by DI specialist Justin Tran. He made sure everything was running and worked out all the technical kinks. [Editor’s Note: Tran debayered the Arri raw files for the DI and VFX vendors via the SGO Mistika. He and his team also used it for complex opticals, including dynamic retimes and clean up work.]

Back at Alter Ego in Toronto we have five Baselights and a full team of six colorists. I was able to get their help because the day-for-night footage required a lot of detailed roto work.

Can you talk more about this day-for-night scene?
This was a very unusual way of doing day-for-night photography. John Seale exposed the digital negative about two stops overexposed. This goes against every rulebook, but the Arri Alexa camera has so much range. If you don’t clip the highlights in the roll-off, it’s actually nice and silky, and when you drop the exposure back down in the grading suite, you can pull all this information out of the shadows because you have so much range from being overexposed.

Whipp called on FilmLight’s Baselight for the grade.

That’s how we created the look… by being able to dig out detail, but selectively. You see what you need to see yet the scene still feels dark, like a night scene.

You use some extreme color in the film.
Yes. We knew going in that this was one big, long road movie. Other than at the beginning of the film there really aren’t any interiors. We knew it could become very boring to watch when the only color palate was sand and some occasional sky.

The mantra in our heads was “keep it looking like a graphic novel”. We would look across the story, look at the scenes and work out how to apply a slightly different look to different scenes to keep it interesting.

Can you offer some examples?
In the scene where Max first meets Furiosa and the wives who are escaping, we went with a very golden and white look — the sky is very white. It’s like they were the golden goddesses. It’s a look that helps tell that story. When we go to night, though, we went the opposite and extremely blue. It’s not necessarily a photorealistic night, but a very graphic night. It’s refreshing to see something blue because you’ve been staring at so much gold for so long with all the sand.

Later in the film there’s a scene where the characters have to come up with a plan, but the audience isn’t sure if the plan will work. For that scene, instead of going with blue skies in the background, we put in new and quite stormy skies, but the characters are in sunlight. So they’re standing in sun and it’s storming in the background and you’re getting an uneasy feeling. That’s helping to tell the story that you’re not sure if the plan will work or not.

How do you work with the Baselight? Can you just talk a little bit about the tool itself?
I think that Baselight is one of the few grading systems out there that can do mini-visual effects type work. It’s quite powerful. The way we approached this film was not just your typical 3-4 weeks of color grading at the end of a movie; it really became the finishing suite.

More of that graphic novel look.

Can you explain that?
All the visual effects would come in and everything passed through the Baselight. We took mattes from visual effects and the raw footage and put everything together. We tried to tidy it all up because there’s lots of tiny effects work that we would do in Baselight, like sky replacement and other little mini-comps. The goal was to finish everything and get it as smooth and silky as possible.

This is a visual effects-heavy film. Other than everything having to go through your suite there at the end, did the VFX have an affect on your work?
No. Actually, the fact that it was very visual effects heavy was excellent. I have done a lot of animated films where we work with these mattes and break up all the components into every eyeball and mouth and character. The same thing worked with this film. Whenever we got a visual effects delivery, if a background was being enhanced or a mountain was being put in a background, we would get mattes for that so we could control those elements.

Control them how?
With grading, especially with a movie that’s so heavy in its look like this, if you put a very strong, contrast-y look onto the images, you might lose a lot of detail somewhere. Often, that is detail that a visual effects artist has spent a lot of time putting in, and now you’ve just crushed all that detail away. So having the matte to control that element and expose it back up and balance it all out again is actually really useful.

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Thanks to Eric Whipp for taking the time to chat with postPerspective, and don’t forget to take a look at our coverage of John Seale’s “Fury Road” experience.