Tag Archives: Netflix

Cobalt Digital’s card-based solution for 4K/HDR conversions

Cobalt Digital was at NAB showing with card-based solutions for openGear frames for 4K and HDR workflows. Cobalt’s 9904-UDX-4K up/down/cross converter and image processor offers an economical SDR-to-HDR and HDR-to-SDR conversion for 4K.

John Stevens, CTO of Burbank post house The Foundation, calls it “a swiss army knife” for a post facility.

The 9904-UDX-4K upconverts 12G/6G/3G/HD/SD to either UHD1 3840×2160 Square DIvision Multiplex (SDM) or Two-Sample Interleave (2SI) quad 3G-SDI-based formats, or can output ST 2082 12G-SDI for single-wire 4K transport. With both 12G-SDI and quad 3G-SDI inputs, the 9904-UDX-4K can downconvert 12G and quad UHD. The 9904-UDX-4K provides an HDMI 2.0 output for economical 4K video monitoring. The 9904-UDX-4K offers numerous options, including SDR-to-HDR conversion and color correction.

The 9904-UDX-4K-IP model offers the same functionality as the 9904-UDX-4K SDI-based model, but also provides dual 10GigE ports providing support for the emerging uncompressed video/audio/data over IP standards.

The 9904-UDX-4K-DSP model provides the same functionality as the 9904-UDX-4K model, and additionally also offers a DSP-based platform that supports multiple audio DSP options, including Dolby Real-Time Loudness Leveling automatic loudness processing, Dolby E/D/D+ encode/decode and Linear Acoustic Upmax automatic upmixing. Embedded audio and metadata are properly delayed and re-embedded to match any video processing delay, with full adjustment available for audio/video offset.

The product’s high-density openGear design allows for up to five 9904-UDX-4K to be installed in one 2RU openGear frame. Card control/monitoring is available via DashBoard user interface, integrated HTML5 web interface, SNMP or Cobalt’s RESTful-based Reflex protocol.

“I have been looking for a de-embedder that will work with SMPTE ST-2048 raster sizes — specifically 2048×1080, 4096×2160,” explains Stevens. “The reason this is important is Netflix deliverables require these rasters. We use all embedded audio and I need to de-embed for monitoring. The same Cobalt Digital card will take almost every SDI input from quad link to 12G and output HDMI. There are other converters that will do some of the same things, but I haven’t seen anything that does what this product does.”

The Kominsky Method‘s post brain trust: Ross Cavanaugh and Ethan Henderson

By Iain Blair

As Bette Davis famously said, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies!” But Netflix’s The Kominsky Method proves that in the hands of veteran sitcom creator Chuck Lorre — The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men and many others — there’s plenty of laughs to be mined from old age… and disease, loneliness and incontinence.

The show stars Michael Douglas as divorced, has-been actor and respected acting coach Sandy Kominsky and Alan Arkin as his longtime agent Norman Newlander. The story follows these bickering best friends as they tackle life’s inevitable curveballs while navigating their later years in Los Angeles, a city that values youth and beauty above all. Both comedic and emotional, The Kominsky Method won Douglas a Golden Globe.

 

Ethan Henderson and Ross Cavanaugh

The single-camera show is written by Al Higgins, David Javerbaum and Lorre, who also directed the first episode. Lorre, Higgins and Douglas executive produce the series, which is produced by Chuck Lorre Productions in association with Warner Bros. Television.

I recently spoke with post producer Ross Cavanaugh and post coordinator Ethan Henderson about posting the show.

You are currently working on Season 2?
Ross Cavanaugh: Yes, and we’re moving along quite quickly. We’re already about three-quarters of the way through the season shooting-wise, out of the eight-show arc.

Where do you shoot, and what’s the schedule like?
Cavanaugh: We shoot mainly on the lot at Warner Bros. and then at various locations around LA. We start prepping each show one week before we start shooting, and then we get dailies the day after the first shooting day.

Our dailies lab is Picture Shop, which is right up the street in Burbank and very convenient for us. So getting footage from the set to them is quick, and they’re very fast at turning the dailies around. We usually get them by midnight the same day we drop them off,  then our editors start cutting fairly quickly after that.

Where do you do all the post?
Cavanaugh: Mainly at Picture Shop, who are very experienced in TV post work. They do all the post finishing and some of the VFX stuff — usually the smaller things, like beauty fixes and cleanup. They also do all the final color correction since DP Anette Haellmigk really wanted to work with colorist George Manno. They’ve been really great.

Ethan Henderson: We’re back and forth from the lot to Picture Shop, and once we get more heavily involved in all the post I spend a lot of time there while we are onlining the show and coloring and doing the VFX drop-ins and when we start the final deliverables process, since everything for Netflix comes out of there.

What are the big challenges of post production on this show, and how closely do you work with Chuck Lorre?
Cavanaugh: As with any TV show, you’re always on a very tight deadline, and there are a lot of moving parts to deal with very quickly. While our prolific showrunner Chuck Lorre is busy with all the projects he has going — especially with all the writing — he always makes time for us. He’s very passionate about the cut and is extremely on top of things.

I’d say the challenges on this show are actually fairly minimal. Basically, we ran a pretty tight ship on the first season, and now I’d say it’s a well-oiled machine. We haven’t had any big problems or surprises in post, which can happen.

Let’s talk about editing. You have two editors, Matthew Barbato and Gina Sansom. I assume that’s because of the time factor. How does that work?
Cavanaugh: Actually, Matthew moved to Veep, and Steven Lang took over for him this season. Each editor has their own assistant editor — Steven has Jack Cunningham and Gina has Barb Steele. They cut separately and work on an odds-and-evens schedule, each doing every other episode. We all get together to watch screenings of the Director’s Cut, usually in the editorial bay.

What are the big editing challenges?
Cavanaugh: We have a pretty big cast, and there’s a ton of jokes and stuff going on all the time. In addition to Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin, the actors are so experienced. They gave such great performances — there’s a lot of material for the editors to cut from. To be honest, the scripts are all so tight that I think one of the challenges is knowing when to cut out a joke, to serve the pacing of an episode.

This isn’t a VFX-driven show, but there are some visual effects shots. Can you explain?
Cavanaugh: We do a lot of driving scenes and use 24frame.com, who have this really good wraparound HD projection technology, so we pretty much shoot all our car scenes on the stage.

Henderson: Once in a while we’ll pick up some exterior or establishing shots on a freeway using doubles in the cars. All the plates are picked ahead of time. Once in a while, for the sake of continuity, we’ll have to replace a plate in the background and put a different section of the plate in because too many cars ran by and it didn’t match up in the edit.

 

That’s one of the things that comes up every so often. The other big thing is that both of the leads wear glasses, so reflections of crew and equipment can become an issue; we have to deal with all that and clean it up.

Cavanaugh: We don’t use many big VFX shots, and we can’t reveal much about what happens in the new season, but sometimes there’s stuff like the scene in season one where one of the characters threw some firecrackers at Michael Douglas’ feet. We obviously weren’t going to throw real ones at Michael Douglas, although I think he’d have sucked it up if we’d done it that way! We were shooting in a residential neighborhood at night and we couldn’t set off real ones because they are very loud, so we ended up doing it all with VFX. FuseFx handled the workload for the heavier VFX work.

Henderson: There was a big shot in the pilot where we did a lot of shot extensions in a restaurant where Sandy Kominsky (Douglas) and Nancy Travis’ character are having coffee. It was this big sweeping pan down over the city.

Can you talk about the importance of sound and music?
Cavanaugh: They both play a key role, and we have a great team that includes music editor Joe Deveau, supervising sound editor Lou Thomas and sound mixers Yuri Reese and Bill Smith. The sound recording quality we get on set is always great, so that means we only need very minimal ADR. The whole sound mix is done here on the lot at Warners.

Our composer, Jeff Cardoni, worked with Chuck on Young Sheldon, and he’s really on top of getting all the new cues for the show. We basically have two versions of our main title sequence music cues — one is very bombastic and in-your-face, and the other is a bit more subtle — and it’s funny how it broke down in the first season. The guy who cut the pilot and the odd episodes went with the more bombastic version, while the second editor on the even episodes preferred the softer cues, so I’ll be curious to see how all that breaks down in the new season.

How important is all the coloring on this?
Cavanaugh: Very important. After we do all the online we ship it over to George at Picture Shop and spend about a day and a half on it. The DP either comes in or gets a file, and she gives her notes. Then we’ll play it for Chuck. We’re in the HDR world with Dolby Vision, and it makes it look so beautiful — but then we have to do the standard pass on it as well.

I know you can’t reveal too much about the new season, but what can fans expect?
Henderson: They’re getting a continuation of these two characters’ journey together — growing old and everything that comes with that. I think it feels like a very natural extension of the first season.

Cavanaugh: In terms of the post process, I feel like we’re a Swiss watch now. We’re ticking along very smoothly. Sometimes post can be a nightmare and full of problems, so it’s great to have it all under control.


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.

Netflix hires Leon Silverman to enhance global post operation

By Adrian Pennington

Veteran postproduction executive Leon Silverman was pondering the future when Netflix came calling. The former president of Laser Pacific has spent the last decade building up Disney’s in-house digital post production wing as general manager, but will be taking on what is arguably one of the biggest jobs in the industry — director, post operations and creative services at Netflix.

“To tell you the truth, I wasn’t looking for a new job. I was looking to explore the next chapter of my life,” said Silverman, announcing the news at the HPA Tech Retreat last month.

“The fact is, if there is any organization or group of people anywhere that can bring content creators together with creative technology innovation in service of global storytelling, it is Netflix. This is a real opportunity to work closely with the creative community and with partners to create a future industry worthy of its past.”

That final point is telling. Indeed, Silverman’s move from one of the titans of Hollywood to the powerhouse of digital is symbolic of an industry passing the baton of innovation.

“In some ways, moving to Netflix is a culmination of everything I have been trying to achieve throughout my career,” says Silverman. “It’s about the intersection of technology and creativity, that nexus where art and science meet in order to innovate new forms of storytelling. Netflix has the resources, the vision and the talent to align these goals.”

L-R: Leon Silverman and Sean Cooney

Silverman will report to Sean Cooney, Netflix, director worldwide post production. During his keynote at the HPA Tech Retreat, Cooney introduced Silverman and his new role. He noted that the former president of the HPA (2008-2016) had built and run some of the most cutting-edge facilities on the planet.

“We know that there is work to be done on our part to better serve our talent,” says Cooney. “We were looking for someone with a deep understanding of the industry’s long and storied history of entertainment creation. Someone who knows the importance of working closely with creatives and has a vision for where things are going in the future.”

Netflix global post operation is centered in LA where it employs the majority of its 250 staff and will oversee delivery of 1,000 original pieces of programming this year. But with regional content increasingly important to the growth of the organization, Cooney and Silverman’s tricky task is to streamline core functions like localization, QC, asset management and archive while increasing output from Asia, Latin America and Europe.

“One of the challenges is making sure that the talent we work with feel they are creatively supported even while we operate on a such a large scale,” explains Cooney. “We want to continue to provide a boutique experience even as we expand.”

There’s recognition of the importance to Netflix of its relationship with dozens of third-party post houses, freelance artists and tech vendors.

“Netflix has spent a lot of time cultivating deep relationships in the post community, but as we get more and more involved in upstream production we want to focus on reducing the friction between the creative side of production and the delivery side,” says Silverman. “We need to redesign our internal workflows to really try to take as much as friction out of the process as possible.”

Netflix: Black Mirror – Bandersnatch

While this makes sense from a business point of view, there’s a creative intent too. Bandersnatch, the breakthrough interactive drama from the Black Mirror team, could not have been realized without close collaboration from editorial all the way to user interface design.

“We developed special technology to enable audience interaction but that had to work in concert with our engineering and product teams and with editorial and post teams,” says Cooney.

Silverman likens this collapse of the traditional role of post into the act of production itself as “Post Post.” It’s an industry-wide trend that will enable companies like Netflix to innovate new formats spanning film, TV and immersive media.

“We are at a time and a place where the very notion of a serial progression from content inception to production to editorial then finish to distribution is anachronistic,” says Silverman. “It’s not that post is dead, it’s just that ‘post’ is not ‘after’ anything as much as it has become the underlying fabric of content creation, production and distribution. There are some real opportunities to create a more expansive, elegant and global ability to enable storytellers of all kinds to make stories of all kinds — wherever they are.”


UK-based Adrian Pennington is a professional journalist and editor specializing in the production, the technology and the business of moving image media.

VFX editor Warren Mazutinec on life, work and Altered Carbon

By Jeremy Presner

Long-time assistant editor Warren Mazutinec’s love for filming began when he saw Star Wars as an eight-year-old in a small town in Edmonton, Alberta. Unlike many other Lucas-heads, however, this one got to live out his dream grinding away in cutting rooms from Vancouver to LA working with some of the biggest editors in the galaxy.

We met back in 1998 when he assisted me on the editing of the Martin Sheen “classic” Voyage of Terror. We remain friends to this day. One of Warren’s more recent projects was Netflix’s VFX-heavy Altered Carbon, which got a lot of love from critics and audiences alike.

My old friend, who is now based in Vancouver, has an interesting story to tell, moving from assistant editor to VFX editor working on films like Underworld 4, Tomorrowland, Elysium and Chappie, so I threw some questions at him. Enjoy!

Warren Mazutinec

How did you get into the business?
I always wanted to work in the entertainment industry, but that was hard to find in Alberta. No film school-type programs were even offered, so I took the closest thing at a local college: audiovisual communications. While there, I studied photography, audio and video, but nothing like actual filmmaking. After that I attended Vancouver Film School. After film school, and with the help of some good friends, I got an opportunity to be a trainee at Shavick Entertainment.

What was it like working at a “film factory” that cranked out five to six pictures a year?
It was fun, but the product ultimately became intolerable. Movies for nine-year-olds can only be so interesting… especially low-budget ones.

What do your parents think of your career option?
Being from Alberta, everyone thought it wasn’t a real job — just a Hollywood dream. It took some convincing; my dad still tells me to look for work between gigs.

How did you learn Avid? Were you self-taught?
I was handed the manual by a post supervisor on day one. I never read it. I just asked questions and played around on any machine available. So I did have a lot of help, but I also went into work during my free time and on weekends to sit and learn what I needed to do.

Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to have cool people to work with and to learn with and from. I did six movies before I had an email address, more before I even owned a computer.

As media strayed away from film into digital, how did your role change in the cutting room? How did you refine your techniques with a changing workflow?
My first non-film movie was Underworld 4. It was shot with a Red One camera. I pretty much lied and said I knew how to deal with it. There was no difference really; just had to say goodbye to lab rolls, Keykode, etc. It was also a 3D stereo project, so that was a pickle, but not too hard to figure out.

How did you figure out the 3D stereo post?
It was basically learning to do everything twice. During production we really only played back in 3D for the novelty. I think most shows are 3D-ified in post. I’m not sure though, I’ve only done the one.

Do you think VR/AR will be something you work with in the future?
Yes, I want to be involved in VR at some point. It’s going to be big. Even just doing sound design would be cool. I think it’s the next step, and I want in.

Who are some of your favorite filmmakers?
David Lynch is my number one, by far. I love his work in all forms. A real treasure tor sure. David Fincher is great too. Scorsese, Christopher Nolan. There are so many great filmmakers working right now.

Is post in your world constantly changing, or have things more or less leveled off?
Both. But usually someone has dailies figured out, so Avid is pretty much the same. We cut in DNx115 or DnX36, so nothing like 4K-type stuff. Conform at the end is always fun, but there are tests we do at the start to figure it all out. We are rarely treading in new water.

What was it like transitioning to VFX editor? What tools did you need to learn to do that role?
FileMaker. And Jesus, son, I didn’t learn it. It’s a tough beast but it can do a lot. I managed to wrangle it to do what I was asked for, but it’s a hugely powerful piece of software. I picked up a few things on Tomorrowland and went from there.

I like the pace of the VFX editor. It’s different than assisting and is a nice change. I’d like to do more of it. I’d like to learn and use After Effects more. On the film I was VFX editor for, I was able to just use the Avid, as it wasn’t that complex. Mostly set extensions, etc.

How many VFX shot revisions would a typical shot go through on Elysium?
On Elysium, the shot version numbers got quite high, but part of that would be internal versioning by the vendor. Director Neil Blomkamp is a VFX guy himself, so he was pretty involved and knew what he wanted. The robots kept looking cooler and cooler as the show went on. Same for Chappie. That robot was almost perfect, but it took a while to get there.

You’ve worked with a vast array of editors, from, including Walter Murch, Lee Smith, Julian Clarke, Nancy Richardson and Bill Steinkamp. Can you talk about that, and have any of them let you cut material?
I’ll assemble scenes if asked to, just to help the editor out so he isn’t starting from scratch. If I get bored, I start cutting scenes as well. On Altered Carbon, when Julian (Clark) was busy with Episodes 2 and 3, I’d try to at least string together a scene or two for Episode 8. Not fine-cutting, mind you, just laying out the framework.

Walter asked a lot of us — the workload was massive. Lee Smith didn’t ask for much. Everyone asks for scene cards that they never use, ha!

Walter hadn’t worked on the Avid for five years or so prior to Tomorrowland, so there was a lot of him walking out of his room asking, “How do I?” It was funny because a lot of the time I knew what he was asking, but I had to actually do it on my machine because it’s so second nature.

What is Walter Murch like in the cutting room? Was learning his organizational process something you carried over into future cutting rooms?
I was a bit intimidated prior to meeting him. He’s awesome though. We got along great and worked well together. There was Walter, a VFX editor and four assistants. We all shared in the process. Of course, Walter’s workflow is unlike any other so it was a huge adjustment, but within a few weeks we were a well-oiled machine.

I’d come in at 6:30am to get dailies sorted and would usually finish around lunch. Then we’d screen in our theater and make notes, all of us. I really enjoyed screening the dailies that way. Then he would go into his room and do his thing. I really wish all films followed his workflow. As tough as it is, it all makes sense and nothing gets lost.

I have seen photos with the colored boxes and triangles on the wall. What does all that mean, and how often was that board updated?
Ha. That’s Walter’s own version of scene cards. It makes way better sense. The colors and shapes mean a particular thing — the longer the card the longer the scene. He did all that himself, said it helps him see the picture. I would peek into his room and watch him do this. He seemed so happy doing it, like a little kid.

Do you always add descriptions and metadata to your shots in Avid Media Composer?
We add everything possible. Usually there is a codebook the studios want, so we generate that with FileMaker on almost all the bigger shows. Walter’s is the same just way bigger and better. It made the VFX database look like a toy.

What is your workflow for managing/organizing footage?
A lot of times you have to follow someone else’s procedure, but if left to my own devices I try to make it the simplest it can be so anyone can figure out what was done.

How do you organize your timeline?
It’s specific to the editor, but I like to use as many audio tracks as possible and as few video tracks as possible, but when it’s a VFX-heavy show, that isn’t possible due to stacking various shot versions.

What did you learn from Lee Smith and Julian Clarke?
Lee Smith is a suuuuuper nice guy. He always had great stories from past films and he’s a very good editor. I’m glad he got the Oscar for Dunkirk, he’s done a lot of great work.

Julian is also great to work with. I’ve worked with him on Elysium, Chappie and Altered Carbon. He likes to cut with a lot of sound, so it’s fun to work with him. I love cutting sound, and on Altered Carbon we had over 60 tracks. It was a alternating stereo setup and we used all the tracks possible.

Altered Carbon

It was such a fun world to create sound for. Everything that could make a sound we put in. We also invented signature sounds for the tech we hoped they’d use in the final. And they did for some things.

Was that a 5.1 temp mix?? Have you ever done one?
No. I want to do a 5.1 Avid mix. Looks fun.

What was the schedule like on Altered Carbon? How was that different than some of the features you’ve worked on?
It was six-day weeks and 12 hours a day. Usually one week per month I’d trade off with the 2nd assistant and she’d let me have an actual weekend. It was a bit of a grind. I worked on Episodes 2, 3 and 8, and the schedules for those were tight, but somehow we got through it all. We had a great team up here for Vancouver’s editorial. They were also cutting in LA as well. It was pretty much non-stop editing the whole way through.

How involved was Netflix in terms of the notes process? Were you working with the same editors on the episodes you assisted?
Yes, all episodes were with Julian. First it went through Skydance notes, then Netflix. Skydance usually had more as they were the first to see the cuts. There were many versions for sure.

What was it like working with Neil Blomkamp?
It was awesome. He makes cool films, and it’s great to see footage like that. I love shooting guns, explosions, swords and swearing. I beat him in ping-pong once. I danced around in victory and he demanded we play again. I retired. One of the best environments I’ve ever worked in. Elysium was my favorite gig.

What’s the largest your crew has gotten in post?
Usually one or two editors, up to four assistants, a PA, a post super — so eight or nine, depending.

Do you prefer working with a large team or do you like smaller films?
I like the larger team. It can all be pretty overwhelming and having others there to help out, the easier it can be to get through. The more the merrier!

Altered Carbon

How do you handle long-ass-days?
Long days aren’t bad when you have something to do. On Altered Carbon I kept a skateboard in my car for those times. I just skated around the studio waiting for a text. Recently I purchased a One-Wheel (skateboard with 1 wheel) and plan to use it to commute to work as much as possible.

How do you navigate the politics of a cutting room?
Politics can be tricky. I usually try to keep out of things unless I’m asked, but I do like to have a sit down or a discussion of what’s going on privately with the editor or post super. I like to be aware of what’s coming, so the rest of us are ready.

Do you prefer features to TV?
It doesn’t matter anymore because the good filmmakers work in both mediums. It used to be that features were one thing and TV was another, with less complex stories. Now that’s different and at times it’s the opposite. Features usually pay more though, but again that’s changing. I still think features are where it’s at, but that’s just vanity talking.

Sometimes your project posts in Vancouver but moves to LA for finishing. Why? Does it ever come back?
Mostly I think it’s because that’s where the director/producers/studio lives. After it’s shot everyone just goes back home. Home is usually LA or NY. I wish they’d stay here.

How long do you think you’ll continue being an AE? Until you retire? What age do you think that’ll be?
No idea; I just want to keep working on projects that excite me.

Would you ever want to be an editor or do you think you’d like to pivot to VFX, or are you happy where you are?
I only hope to keep learning and doing more. I like the VFX editing, I like assisting and I like being creative. As far as cutting goes, I’d like to get on a cool series as a junior editor or at least start doing a few scenes to get better. I just want to keep advancing, I’d love to do some VR stuff.

What’s next for you project wise?
I’m on a Disney Show called Timmy Failure. I can’t say anything more at this point.

What advice do you have for other assistant editors trying to come up?
It’s going to take a lot longer than you think to become good at the job. Being the only assistant does not make you a qualified first assistant. It took me 10 years to get there. Also you never stop learning, so always be open to another approach. Everyone does things differently. With Murch on Tomorrowland, it was a whole new way of doing things that I had never seen before, so it was interesting to learn, although it was very intimidating at the start.


Jeremy Presner is an Emmy-nominated film and television editor residing in New York City. Twenty years ago, Warren was AE on his first film. Since then he has cut such diverse projects as Carrie, Stargate Atlantis, Love & Hip Hop and Breaking Amish.

VFX Supervision: The Coens’ Western The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

By Randi Altman

The writing and directing duo of Joel and Ethan Coen have taken on the American Western with their new Netflix film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. This offering features six different vignettes that follow outlaws and settlers on the American frontier.

It stars the Coen brothers’ favorite Tim Blake Nelson as Buster, along with Liam Neeson, James Franco, Brenden Gleeson and many other familiar faces, even Tom Waits! It’s got dark humor and a ton of Coen quirkiness.

Alex Lemke (middle) on set with the Coen brothers.

For their visual effects needs, the filmmakers turned to New York-based East Side Effects co-founders and VFX supervisors Alexander Lemke and Michael Huber to help make things look authentic.

We reached out to visual effects supervisors Lemke and Huber to find out more about their process on the film and how they worked with these acclaimed filmmakers. East Side Effects created two-thirds of the visual effects in-house, while other houses, such as The Mill and Method, provided shots as well.

How many VFX shots were there in total?
Alexander Lemke: In the end, 704 shots had digital effects in them. This has to be a new record for the Coens. Joel at one point jokingly called it their “Marvel movie.”

How early did you get involved? Can you talk about that process?
Michael Huber: Alex and myself were first approached in January 2017 and had our first meetings shortly thereafter. We went through the script with the Coens and designed what we call a “VFX bible,” which outlined how we thought certain effects could be achieved. We then started collecting references from other films or real-life footage.

Did you do previs? 
Lemke: The Coens have been doing movies for so long in their own way that previs never really became an issue. For the Indian battles, we tried to interest them in the Ncam virtual camera system in combination with pre-generated assets, but that is not their way of doing a film.

The whole project was storyboarded by J. Todd Anderson, who has been their go-to storyboard guy since Raising Arizona. These storyboards gave a pretty good indication of what to expect, but there were still a lot of changes due to the nature of the project, such as weather and shooting with animals.

What were some of the challenges of the process and can you talk about creating the digital characters that were needed?
Huber: Every story had its own challenge, ranging from straightforward paintouts and continuity fixes to CG animals and complex head replacements using motion control technology. In order to keep the work as close to the directors as possible, we assembled a group of artists to serve as an extended in-house team, creating the majority of shots while also acting as a hub for external vendor work.

In addition, a color workflow using ACES and FilmLight Baselight was established to match VFX shots seamlessly to the dailies look established by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and senior colorist Peter Doyle. All VFX pulls were handled in-house.

Lemke: The Coens like to keep things in-camera as much as possible, so animals like the owl in “All Gold Canyon” or the dog in “Gal” were real. Very early on it was clear that some horse falls wouldn’t be possible as a practical stunt, so Joel and Ethan had a reel compiled with various digital horse stunts — including the “Battle of the Bastards” from Game of Thrones, which was done by Iloura (now Method). We liked that so much that we decided to just go for it and reach out to these guys, and we were thrilled when we got them on board for this. They did the “dog-hole!” horse falls in the “The Gal Who Got Rattled” segment, as well as the carriage horses in “Mortal Remains.”

Huber: For the deer in “All Gold Canyon,” the long-time plan was to shoot a real deer against bluescreen, but it became clear that we might not get the very specific actions Joel and Ethan wanted to see. They were constantly referring to the opening of Shane, which has this great shot of the titular character appearing through the antlers of a deer. So, it became more and more clear it would have to be a digital solution, and we were very happy to get The Mill in New York to work on that for us. Eventually, they would also handle all the other critters in the opening sequence.

Can you talk about Meal Ticket’s “artist” character, who is missing limbs?
Lemke: The “Wingless Thrush” — as he is referred to on a poster in the film — was a combined effort of the art department, special effects, costume design, VFX and, of course, actor Harry Melling’s incredible stamina. He was performing this poetry while standing in a hole in the ground with his hands behind his back, and went for it take after take, sometimes in the freezing cold.

Huber: It was clear that 98% of all shots would be painting out his arms and legs, so SFX supervisor Steve Cremin had to devise a way to cut holes into the set and his chair to make it appear he was resting on his stumps. Our costume designer, Mary Zophres, had the great idea of having him wear a regular shirt where the longs sleeves were just folded up, which helped with hiding his arms. He wasn’t wearing any blue garment, just black, which helped with getting any unnecessary color spill in the set.

Alex was on set to make sure we would shoot clean plates after each setup. Luckily, the Coen brothers’ approach to these shots was really focusing on Harry’s performance in long locked-off takes, so we didn’t have to deal with a lot of camera motion. We also helped Harry’s look by warping his shoulders closer to his body in some shots.

Was there a particular scene with this character that was most challenging or that you are most proud of?
Lemke: While most of the paintout shots were pretty straightforward — we just had to deal with the sheer amount of shots and edit changes — the most challenging parts are when Liam Neeson carries Harry in a backpack up the stairs in a brothel. He then puts him on the ground and eventually turns him away from the “action” that is about to happen.

We talked about different approaches early on. At some point, a rig was considered to help with him being carried up the stairs, but this would have meant an enormous amount of paint work, not to mention the setup time on a very tight shooting schedule. A CG head might have worked for the stairs, but for the long close up shots of Harry — both over a minute long, and only with very subtle facial expressions — it would have been cost prohibitive and maybe not successful in the end. So a head replacement seemed like the best solution, which comes with its own set of problems. In our case, shooting a head element of Harry that would match exactly what the dummy on Liam’s back and on the ground was doing in the production plates.

We came up with a very elaborate set up, where we would track the backpack and a dummy in the live-action photography in 3D Equalizer. We then reengineered this data into Kuper move files that would drive a motion control motion base combo.

Basically, Harry would sit on a computerized motion base that would do the turning motion so he could react to being pushed around. This happened while the motion control camera would take care of all the translations. This also meant our DP Bruno had to create animated lighting for the staircase shot to make the head element really sit in the plate.

We worked with Pacific Motion for the motion control. Mike Leben was our operator. For the NAC effects for the motion base, Nic Nicholson took care of this. Special thanks goes out to Christoph Gaudl for his camera and object tracking, Stefan Galleithner for taking on the task of converting all that data into something the camera and base would understand, and Kelly Chang and Mike Viscione for on-set Maya support.

Of course, you only get an element that works 80% of the way — the rest was laborious compositing work. Since we put the motion base to its speed limits on the staircase shot, we actually had to shoot it half speed and then speed it up in post. This meant a lot of warping/tracking was needed to make sure there was no slippage.

Michael Huber

The dummy we used for the live-action photography didn’t have any breathing movement in it, so we used parts of Harry’s bluescreen plates as a guideline of how his chest should move. These tricky tasks were expertly performed mainly by Danica Parry, Euna Kho and Sabrina Tenore.

Can you talk about how valuable it is being on set?
Huber: It is just valuable to be on set when the call sheet calls for a greenscreen, while we really need a bluescreen! But joking aside, Joel and Ethan were very happy to have someone there all the time during the main shoot in case something came up, which happened a lot because we were shooting outdoors so much and we were dependent on the weather.

For the opening shot of Buster riding through Monument Valley, they were thinking of a very specific view — something they had seen on a picture on the Internet. Through Google Maps and research, Alex was able to find out the exact location that picture was taken. So, on a weekend when we weren’t shooting, he packed up his family and drove up to the Valley to shoot photographs that would serve as the basis for the matte painting for the first shot of the film — instead of going there with a whole crew.

Another instance being on set helped would be the scene with Tom Waits in the tree — the backgrounds for these bluescreen shots were a mixture of B camera and Alex’s location photography while in Colorado. Same goes for the owl tree backgrounds.

What tools did East Side use on the film?
Huber: For software we called on Foundry Nuke (X & Studio), Boris FX Mocha Pro and Side Effects Houdini. For hardware we used HP and SuperMicro workstations running Linux. There was also proprietary software such as using Houdini digital assets for blood simulations.

We were using Autodesk Shotgun with a proprietary connection to Nuke that handled all our artist interaction and versioning, including automatically applying the correct Baselight grade when creating a version. This also allowed us to use the RV-Shotgun integration for reviewing.

Can you talk about the turnaround times and deadlines?
Lemke: Working on a Coen brothers film means you don’t have a lot of things you normally have to deal with — studio screenings, trailers, and such. At the same time, they insisted on working through the stories chronologically, so that meant that the later segments would come in late in the schedule. But, it is always a great experience working with filmmakers who have a clear vision and know what they are doing.

DP Chat: Nightflyers’ Markus Förderer, BVK

For German DP Markus Förderer, BVK, quickly developed an impressive resume of visually unique and critically acclaimed feature films. His feature film debut, Hell, earned Förderer a number of awards. He went on to shoot Mike Cahill‘s sci-fi drama, I Origins, which was awarded the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. He followed that with I Remember, which premiered at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival and won the 2016 German Camera Award for Best Cinematography.

Markus Förderer on the Nightflyers set.

His early work got him earmarked as one of Variety’s 2015 Up Next cinematographers. Most recently, Förderer collaborated with director Roland Emmerich on Stonewall and Independence Day: Resurgence and shot the pilot for Rise. He also recently shot the pilot for the highly anticipated sci-fi series Nightflyers by Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin, setting the look for the show’s DPs Gavin Struthers and Peter Robertson.

We reached out to him about his work…

How did you become interested in cinematography?
I was always fascinated by cinema and visual storytelling, watching movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Ridley Scott’s Alien. David Fincher’s early films had a big influence on me. When I learned how to use Photoshop during my time in high school in Germany, a new world of possibilities opened up. I experimented with how to manipulate the mood of images by adjusting colors, brightness and contrast.

This was still in the early days of the Internet and access to digital images online was quite limited then. There were simply not many images in decent resolution and quality on the web for me to play with. This is why I started taking my own stills with an early digital camera. It was a Fujifilm camera that had a 1.3-megapixel sensor. Hard to believe from today’s perspective, but this camera opened my eyes to the world of photography, lighting and composition.

Nightflyers

I felt limited, though, by still images and became determined to become a filmmaker to tell visual stories. Before going to film school, I started reading about filmmaking techniques and interviews with famous DPs and directors and realized that it was the DP’s role that interested me the most — the creation of a certain mood and tone that helps to tell the story and puts the audience in the character’s shoes.

What inspires you artistically?
I am most inspired by reading the scripts and talking to the director. I think each project has to have its own visual identity, and for me it all comes from the script and the director’s initial ideas. Sometimes they come with crazy ambitious ideas, and I see it as the DP’s responsibility to figure out a way to make it work. I believe in naturalism; using single sources and available light whenever possible to create cinematic images that don’t feel overly stylized. New technologies sometimes spark ideas for new or more efficient ways to create interesting shots.

You’ve shot Meridian for Netflix as a test film for 4K and Megan as a concept film for 8K. What new technology has had the most impact on the way you work?
Shooting for HDR with high dynamic range sensors has a big impact on the way I light a scene. I think you can be more extreme and explore low-light photography with very rich detail in the blacks, for example. It is tricky, though, to shoot for SDR and HDR distribution at the same time. The viewing experience is vastly different, especially in extreme lighting scenarios, like very low light or very bright scenes.

Nightflyers

Exploring larger, high-resolution sensors, gives me more freedom when capturing extreme lighting conditions and preserving natural detail the way my eyes see it. Shooting with the right combination of low-contrast lenses with a high-resolution sensor gives me very natural detail in actors’ eyes. It is amazing how much of the performance can be seen in the eyes, when projected properly in 4K.

What are some of your best practices or rules you try to follow on each job?
I think it is most important to create an environment of respectful and polite collaboration between all departments and crewmembers. Filmmaking is a team discipline and it shows if you listen to your crew’s input. I always try to listen closely to the director’s vision and find the right cinematic techniques to realize that vision.

However, following a storyboard or preplanned ideas step by step leads to a sterile movie, in my opinion. It is important to be prepared, but it is crucial to watch the actors carefully on the day and react to the rehearsal. The best days are the ones on which I was surprised by the performance of the actors in a way that inspired me to change the planned blocking and get to the core of the scene in a simple and elegant way.

I like to be surprised (in a good way) by the end results. There’s nothing more boring to me than watching dailies and having the images turn out exactly the way I imagined it beforehand. There is a richness in life that is hard to create in front of the camera, but it is always my goal to strive for that.

Nightflyers

Explain your ideal collaboration with the director when setting the look of a project.
It is great to get involved early on and start bouncing ideas back and forth with the director. Each collaboration is different, and it’s great to work with a director who trusts you and values your input, but I also love working with directors who have a very strong vision and have developed their own visual style over the years.

Tell us about Nightflyers. How would you describe the overarching look of the series pilot? Is there an example of a scene in the pilot that emphasizes this?
Nightflyers is a story about a spaceship and its crew on a very exciting mission to the edge of the solar system. The ship has very dark secrets that are revealed bit by bit. Director Mike Cahill and I focused on creating a specific atmosphere that is scary and leaves room for the audience’s imagination. It was important to us to avoid sci-fi clichés and rather focus on the characters and the way they experience the events on the ship.

The memory suite is an interesting example. It is a room that allows the crew to relive memories in a very visual way. The room by its design looks almost hostile. The first memory we experience, however, is very emotional, portraying the main character’s daughter. Mike was very specific with composition of these shots to create a sense of visual déjà vu, something we explored on a previous feature.

The framing of D’Branin’s character inside the memory suite and inside his memory is exactly the same. We replicated camera moves and used the same focal lengths. Every movement of the actors in the memory was staged, so we could recreate the same shots inside the spherical memory suite. At some point, the barrier between memory and reality starts to dissolve, and the contrast of the cold ship and the content of the memory start to collide in an interesting and scary way.

Nightflyers

How early did you get involved in the production?
Mike Cahill brought up the project quite early, and we flew to Ireland for an initial scout. The team there was fantastic, and everyone from the producers and network’s side wanted to create something really special. Production designer David Sandefur and his team designed amazing sets that gave us great flexibility to come up with interesting shots. This collaboration early on was crucial, as we integrated all the lighting into the ship. It had to be versatile enough to allow for different lighting scenarios for multiple episodes. My gaffer James McGuire did a fantastic job integrating miles of LED light strips. In the end, we could control it from his iPad, which would allow for last-minute tweaks without slowing down the shooting day for the actors and director.

How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses for Nightflyers?
For me, it usually starts with the lens. Mike and I love the claustrophobic look you can achieve with anamorphic lenses in small contained spaces, like a spaceship. We tested a small number of lenses that would give us the desired qualities, and we decided that Panavision’s C-Series lenses would be the right choice for this. Also, I have shot many projects on Red cameras over the years, starting back on the Red-MX sensor. I had tested the Monstro 8K VV sensor from Red and felt it would open up many opportunities with its larger sensor size and incredible sensitivity.

Panavision’s Michael Cioni showed me the latest advances in the DXL camera, and I was sold when I saw how well it sits on your shoulder. We shot a lot of handheld on the pilot and contrasted it with some smooth Steadicam and gimbal shots. The ability to shoot large format and capture amazing images in low light were key for us. We employed Panavision’s DXL and a Red DSMC2 camera with the Monstro 8K VV sensor for tight spaces and lightweight rigs.

Nightflyers

Any challenging scenes that you are particularly proud of?
Shooting the scenes in the biodome was quite challenging. The spaceship is carrying several cargo domes — one of them is a biodome with living trees and a small forest inside. The domes are spinning around the ship’s center to create artificial gravity. We shot the majority in a nearby forest and some shots on stage. To connect the biodome structure with the forest, our art department built an elevator exit and airlock in the forest. The scenes in the dome take place during the day close to earth. We tested many options for lighting, but I found it most interesting to shoot the scenes at night and light them with strong daylight sources to convey the illusion of being in space during the day.

The little atmosphere in the biodome would make the sky outside the windows appear black, yet the inside would be flooded with light. In order to convey the spinning motion of the domes, we mounted a 9K HMI on a telescopic crane and moved it constantly in a circular pattern. This caused the shadows in the forest to move around. It was quite an astonishing experience to be in that forest at night and hear all the birds chirping because they must have thought it was day all of the sudden.

What’s your go-to gear that you can’t live without?
I try to be open to new gear, and I like to mix things up quite a bit from project to project. I find it hard though to go back to shooting Super 35-sized sensors, after working with the Red DSMC2 Monstro; it hits quite a sweet spot between sensor size, resolution and compact size.

DP Chat: No Activity cinematographer Judd Overton

By Randi Altman

Judd Overton, who grew up in the Australian Outback, knew he wanted to be a DP before he even knew exactly what that was, spending a lot of his time watching and re-watching movies on VHS tapes. When he was young, a documentary film crew came to his town. “I watched as the camera operator was hanging off the side of my motorbike filming as we charged over sand dunes. I thought that was a pretty cool job!”

No Activity

The rest, as they say, is history. Overton’s recent work includes the Netflix comedy series The Letdown and No Activity, which is a remake of the Australian comedy series of the same name. It stars Patrick Brammall and Tim Meadows and is produced by CBS Television Studios in association with Funny or Die, Jungle and Gary Sanchez Productions. It streams on CBS All Access.

We recently reached out to Overton, who also just completed the documentary Lessons from Joan, about one of the first female British theater directors, Joan Littlewood.

What inspires you artistically? And how do you simultaneously stay on top of advancing technology that serves your vision?
What I love about what I do is being able to see things, and show the world to audiences in a way people haven’t seen before. I always keep abreast of technology, but for me the technology really needs to service the story. I choose particular equipment in order to capture the emotion of the piece.

What new technology has changed the way you work (looking back over the past few years?
The greatest change in my world is the high-quality, high-ISO cameras now on the market. This has meant being able to shoot in a much less obtrusive way, shooting and lighting to create footage that is far closer to reality.

The use of great-quality LED lighting is something I’m really enjoying. The ability to create and capture any color and control it from your iPhone opens the floodgates for some really creative lighting.

 

Judd Overton

Can you describe your ideal collaboration with the director when setting the look of a project?
Every director is different, it’s a role and relationship I fill as required. Some directors like to operate the camera themselves. In that case, I oversee the lighting. Some directors just want to work with the actors, so my job then involves more responsibilities for coverage, camera movement and selecting locations.

I try to be open to each new experience and make creative guidelines for a project in collaboration with the director and producers, trying to preempt obstacles before they strike.

Tell us about the CBS All Access show No Activity. Can you describe the overall look of the show and what you and the director/producers wanted to achieve?
I shot the pilot for the original No Activity five years ago. Trent O’Donnell (writer/director, co-creator) wanted to make a series out of simple two hander (two actor) scenes.

We decided to use the police procedural drama genre because we knew the audience would fill in gaps with their own knowledge. In a show where very little happens, the mood and style become far more important.

How early did you get involved in the production?
I’ve been involved since the show was conceptualized. We shot the pilot in a parking lot in one of Sydney’s seedier areas. We fought off a lot of rats.

No Activity

How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses for this project?
I had to shoot three cameras, as the show is heavily improvised. Other than my main cameras with zoom lenses, I chose the best cameras for each sequence. We used Blackmagic cameras Ursa Pro and Micro for a lot of our rigged positions. I also used Panasonic cameras for our available light work, and even an Arri 65 for some projection plates.

Were there any scenes that you are particularly proud of?
The scene I had the most fun with was the siege, which plays over the last two episodes of Season 2. We dusted off and fired up two 1930s Arc lights. Carbon Arc lights are what all the old Hollywood films used before HMIs. They are a true 5600 Kelvin, daylight source.

My gaffer’s father actually made these units, and they were refurbished for Quentin Tarantino’s film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. We used them as searchlights for our nighttime siege, and the bright beams and plumes of smoke rising really gave the scene an epic scale.

What’s your go-to gear — things you can’t live without?
Communication is everything, and the latest toy in my toy box is HME headsets. They allow me to have constant communications with my camera operators, grips and electrics, essential when you’re running five cameras across multiple units.

House of Cards showrunners Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese

By Iain Blair

Since it first premiered back in 2013, Netflix’s oh-so-timely political thriller House of Cards has been a big hit, delivering provocative, twisty plot lines peppered with surprises and shocks. It has also racked up dozens of awards, including 33 Primetime Emmys and fistfuls of Golden Globes along the way. But the biggest shocker of all was probably the real-life firing of star Kevin Spacey last year by Netflix, following allegations of sexual misconduct.

Writer Iain Blair (left) with Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese.

With Spacey — and power-hungry Frank Underwood — suddenly MIA, the upside is that girls now rule the world. This is great news for Robin Wright fans as the Golden Globe-winner and Emmy-nominee returns as President of the United States in Season 6, the final season of the series, which is now streaming on Netflix.

The show has added Oscar-nominees Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear to the cast, in addition to American Horror Story-alum Cody Fern. They join existing players Michael Kelly, Jayne Atkinson, Patricia Clarkson, Constance Zimmer, Derek Cecil, Campbell Scott and Boris McGiver.

Behind the scenes, Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese continue as showrunners for Season 6, and serve as executive producers along with Robin Wright, David Fincher, Joshua Donen, Dana Brunetti, Eric Roth, Michael Dobbs and Andrew Davies. Created for television by Beau Willimon, House of Cards is produced by Donen/Fincher/Roth and Trigger Street Productions, in association with Media Rights Capital for Netflix.

I recently spoke with Gibson and Pugliese about making the show and awards season.

When Kevin Spacey was fired, and you lost the show’s star, did you consider ending the series early?
Frank Pugliese: Yes, it was a huge thing, a big shock, and I think it had to be considered.

Melissa James Gibson: Everything was on the table as we wanted to make sure our way forward was the right one. We needed to regroup and carefully go through every possibility.

Pugliese: But pretty quickly we figured out that the best response was to try and tell the story without Francis on screen. So within a day or so, we were back at work, writing out ideas and discussing how to do it.

What can you tell us about the new season? Robin has said that it’ll be “a real shocker.”
Pugliese: Our hope is that it’s shocking but also feels inevitable at the same time, and we’re trying our best to give the show its most satisfying ending that has integrity and also serves a story that’s been told over many years.

Gibson: We tried to forge a brave way forward that would also be a reckoning for all of the characters We both knew that this season “reckoning” would be a key word, along with “complicity.”

Robin’s directed quite a few episodes over the years. Is it true she also directed the big finale?
Pugliese: Yes, and it seemed so appropriate. Remember, Season 5 ended with her saying, “My turn,” so even as we began exploring what to do this season, it seemed unacceptable to not have that examined and dramatized. It just seemed right that she would direct the last one, and the last scene of the whole story was actually done on the last day of shooting. So her as the lead and also directing just seemed right.

Gibson: It kind of all led up to that, and the focus was always going to be on her in Season 6.

Pugliese: So much had been set up at the end of the last season, and we’d talked so much during the planning of that season about how Season 6 would go, and about who really owns the White House. Pile on the power. And Francis says he’ll own the White House by owning her. No matter what, it was going to be all about her and the powers that be trying to own her — one of them being her husband.

Maybe it’s a very prescient arc, and America will elect a woman president next?
Gibson: Wouldn’t that be nice!

Do you like being a showrunners?
Gibson: We both love it. We came on as writers on Season 3 when Beau hired us, worked as writers on Season 4, and then began showrunning last season.

Pugliese: I really like it.

Gibson: It’s because I feel that a lot of the challenges Claire faces this season are the same ones you face as a showrunner (laughs). When you’re making decisions and setting priorities it says a lot about what you value.

What are the big challenges of showrunning?
Gibson: I’d say establishing all the priorities, both micro and macro.

Pugliese: We work very closely, and it probably goes back to our days in theater, but for me it’s establishing a collective communal work atmosphere. Your hope is that you can delegate a lot of the responsibility and then do the best work possible. If you can do that successfully, then the show’s successful. Helping establish all that really helped us with the new season, because in dealing with [the Spacey firing] we all felt that the best way to deal with it was to get to work and focus on telling the best story we could. Everyone agreed on that.

Where do you post?
Pugliese: We shoot in Baltimore, but all the post is done here in LA, and we do remote sessions using Pix.

Is that weird?
Pugliese: It’s weird until it’s not weird. If you think about it, it is, but you quickly get used to it and we can go over sequences in great detail.

Do you like the post process?
Gibson: We love it. It’s the third part of the entire storytelling, and I’ve learned so much dealing with post and editing and visual effects and so on. Our post supervisor, Hameed Shaukat, has been with the show since the very start.

You have several editors, I assume because of the time factor. How does that work?
Gibson: We have about four at any one time, and many have been with the show for years, and they’ll hop-scotch around. We give notes, they’ll re-cut stuff, and we’ll have robust conversations about scenes and the tone and pacing and so on.

Pugliese: Some days we’ll get on the phone right away and they’ll cut some things to see if they’re even working or not. There’s a lot of back and forth.

You have a big cast and a lot of stuff going on in each episode. What are the big editing challenges?
Gibson: It’s always about trying to balance the various competing elements and characters, and then this season we have a number of new characters and cast members, like Diane Lane and Greg Kinnear, so it’s all about calibration and the rhythm.

Pugliese: We work really hard to get the scripts in the best place possible, and we have really intensive and extensive tonal meetings where we go line by line and explain the intent to everyone involved. So if everyone’s on the same page when it comes to tone and intent, then they can go off and just do their jobs. That means less work for us, so we can then just focus on the overall storyline.

Gibson: It helps that there was a rigorous vocabulary established right at the start by David Fincher, so we had a great template to follow.

Pugliese: It also helped us in knowing when it was time to move away from that.

This show has a great score and great sound design. Talk about the importance of sound and music.
Gibson: It’s a vital part, and like Hameed, composer Jeff Beal has been with the show since day one, and he wrote that famous theme. He knows exactly what is needed. We also have a great sound team, with guys like supervising sound editor Jeremy Molod and sound designer Ren Klyce, who’ve also been there since day one. It’s a pretty well-oiled machine by now.

How important are awards to a show like this?
Pugliese: I get so excited when I see people in the show get recognized by their peers. Everyone works so hard.

There’s been a lot of talk about lack of opportunity for women in movies. Are things better in TV?
Gibson: It’s so good that people are now talking openly about the problems, and I think the industry as a whole is trying to make adjustments and make sure there are more women in the room, more people of color. But it’s not just that it’s the right thing to do ethically — it’s also about being good for the work. It needs to change.

Pugliese: Yes, it does need to change, and a correction is long overdue.


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.

 

Tamara Jenkins talks writing, directing the Netflix film Private Life

By Iain Blair

Writer/director Tamara Jenkins has never been shy about mining her personal life for laughs and tears — or taking her time with a project. Her debut feature film, 1998’s semi-autobiographical dark comedy Slums of Beverly Hills, which she wrote and directed, was partly based on her own childhood growing up poor in the mega-wealthy city. The cult hit went on to score two Independent Spirit Awards nominations. Nearly a decade later, she premiered The Savages at Sundance. The comedy, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as neurotic siblings dealing with their dementia-afflicted father, went on to receive two Oscar noms — a Best Actress nod for Linney and a Best Original Screenplay nod for Jenkins.

Tamara Jenkins

Now, another decade later, Jenkins and her husband’s own real-life struggle to have a child has provided fertile material for her new film, Private Life, which stars Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as a middle-aged married couple who have been repeatedly trying to get pregnant, undergoing multiple fertility treatments while also exploring adoption and other options. Just as the possibilities of conception seem to get further away with each passing attempt, an unexpected Hail Mary arrives in the form of a recent college dropout who might just prove to be the last, unconventional piece of their fertility puzzle.

I talked recently with Jenkins about making the film and her advice for aspiring women directors.

So just how autobiographical is this new film?
Quite a bit. The experience of dealing with infertility and IVF is something me and my husband went through for years. I’d discuss it all with a friend who kept telling me, “You should write all this stuff down because it’s so hilarious and so heartbreaking. You should make a movie about this.” But I didn’t quite see it that way at the time (laughs). So the emotional core of the story is true, and I felt like quite an expert on the subject and it informed it all, but then the demands of fiction take over and invention comes in and stuff is made up. So it’s a combination of both fact and fiction.

It’s been over a decade since Savages, partly because of your battle to get pregnant. I assume this can’t have been easy to get greenlit?
No kidding! Infertility is a tough sell. I actually had notes for this back in ’08, right on the heels of The Savages, and I remember going back to them years later and wondering why I hadn’t carried on writing it. Then I remembered, “Oh yeah, I had a baby in 2009!” I’d forgotten that little detail. And then deals fell through until Netflix got involved, so it was a long process.

It’s about infertility, but it’s also really about a marriage, right?
Exactly. I always thought of it as a portrait of a marriage, but one that takes place in the land of IVF and doctors. I had this guiding principle: that it’s like a road movie, and these two characters are in a car and they’re off to infertility land. The key thing was, ‘How do they handle it and endure it, and how does it affect the marriage?’ I was also interested in writing about middle-aged marriage, and how they’re almost having a mutual mid-life crisis together — when you find yourself hitting your head up against what your expectations were for your life and dreams, and what the reality actually is. I think everyone can relate to that.

You assembled a great cast that’s so believable. No one’s super-rich or super-beautiful. What did Paul and Kathryn bring to the roles?
I wanted to make a film about a real couple, not a movie couple, set in a New York that also feels real and not like a movie version of it. They’re so great and grounded in the roles, and have such great chemistry. What’s funny is that you assume actors like Paul and Kathryn know each other having been in the business for a long time, but they’d never even met before. So I ended up organizing a dinner for them at Paul’s house, and I cooked, and they did the dishes together and then we had a read-through. Then a couple of months later we had a few days rehearsal when they both got back to town from other projects.

How long was the shoot?
Just 30 days, which wasn’t long enough. We shot in a real apartment and had to work very fast, but it was pretty smooth.

Where did you do the post?
At Sim Post New York, which used to be Post Factory.

Do you like post?
I absolutely love it. I feel like you always learn so much about filmmaking in post. It’s probably the best way to teach people about what a movie really is, and how it comes together and gets cut and made. For me, post is very exciting but also terrifying. Every movie has this plasticity and you’re trying to find your way. Do you have all the pieces you need? Are they the right stuff for it? But then I love when you start to drop music in and work on all the sound design, and things start to emerge. It’s truly amazing how it takes on a life of its own, like some science experiment.

You worked with The Savages editor Brian Kates. What did he bring to the project, and was he on set?
He visited once, just to check it out, but he then began to do his assembly while I shot. He’s a great collaborator. There was one scene we shot in the apartment that I was a bit worried about, so he cut that early on and then showed me so I could get a sense of how it was working, in case I needed to go back to it. That was very helpful.

What were the main editing challenges?
Tone and pacing are always crucial, but I felt like the tone was pretty well established with the writing and the performances. I suppose the big challenge was finding the right takes, the best performances, but there were tonal things. Maybe it was a bit too broad here, it needed to be a bit more subtle there, that sort of thing.

Can you talk about the VFX in this film?
We had a bit of seasonal stuff, adding snow where there wasn’t enough, doing signage, cleanup, and we used a few fluid morphs, which Brian is really good at on the Avid, and I loved those.

What about the DI?
We also did that at Sim, with colorist Alex Bickel, who is this brilliant artist. I love the DI process, and I think he gave it this beautiful look. We were actually the first people to use their brand new DI stage, so that was a thrill.

There’s been a lot of talk about the lack of opportunity for women directors. Are things improving?
I think the idealism for the improvement is there, but it just takes so long for that to translate into real action and bear fruit. There’s a lot of talk and thinking, but it hasn’t hit the ground yet. It’s still tough for women.

Tamara Jenkins on set.

What’s your advice to a woman who wants to direct?
The best thing I can say is you should probably write and learn to make your own material, so you actually have something to bring to the table. You also have to stick to your guns. I remember years ago going to a writing workshop when I was working on Slums of Beverly Hills, and this big Hollywood screenwriter said, “You can’t open a movie with five pages on a girl getting fitted for a bra!” And I felt like an idiot. It took a while for me to reclaim my sense of self. So if someone tells you something like that, just don’t listen to them.

We’re already heading into the awards season. You’ve been nominated for an Oscar. How important are awards to you and your films?
They’re so important for smaller films like mine because they bring attention they probably wouldn’t get otherwise.

What’s next?
I have an idea I’m developing. I just hope people don’t have to wait another decade for it to arrive (laughs).


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.

Behind the Camera: Television DPs

By Karen Moltenbrey

Directors of photography on television series have their work cut out for them. Most collaborate early on with the director on a signature “look.” Then they have to make sure that aesthetic is maintained with each episode and through each season, should they continue on the series past the pilot. Like film cinematographers, their job entails a wide range of responsibilities aside from the camera work. Once shooting is done, they are often found collaborating with the colorists to ensure that the chosen look is maintained throughout the post process.

Here we focus on two DPs working on two popular television series — one drama, one sitcom — both facing unique challenges inherent in their current projects as they detail their workflows and equipment choices.

Ben Kutchins: Ozark
Lighting is a vital aspect in the look of the Netflix family crime drama Ozark. Or perhaps more accurate, the lack of lighting.

Ben Kutchins (left) on set with actor/director Jason Bateman.

“I’m going for a really naturalistic feel,” says DP Ben Kutchins. “My hope is that it never feels like there’s a light or any kind of artificial lighting on the actors or lighting the space. Rather, it’s something that feels more organic, like sunlight or a lamp that’s on in the room, but still offers a level of being stylized and really leans into the darkness… mining the shadows for the terror that goes along with Ozark.”

Ozark, which just kicked off its second season, focuses on financial planner Marty Byrde, who relocates his family from the Chicago suburbs to a summer resort area in the Missouri Ozarks. After a money laundering scheme goes awry, he must pay off a debt to a Mexican drug lord by moving millions of the cartel’s money from this seemingly quiet place, or die. But, trouble is waiting for them in the Ozarks, as Marty is not the only criminal operating there, and he soon finds himself in much deeper than he ever imagined.

“It’s a story about a family up against impossible odds, who constantly fear for their safety. There is always this feeling of imminent threat. We’re trying to invoke a heightened sense of terror and fear in the audience, similar to what the characters might be feeling,” explains Kutchins. “That’s why a look that creates a vibe of fear and danger is so important. We want it to feel like there is danger lurking around every corner — in the shadows, in the trees behind the characters, in the dark corners of the room.”

In summary, the look of the show is dark — literally and figuratively.

“It is pretty extreme by typical television standards,” Kutchins concedes. “We’ve embraced an aesthetic and are having fun pushing its boundaries, and we’re thrilled that it stands out from a pretty crowded market.”

According to Kutchins, there are numerous examples where the actor disappears into the shadows and then reappears moments later in a pool of light, falling in and out of shadow. For instance, a character may turn off a light and plunge the room into complete darkness, and you do not see that character again until they reappear, until they’re lit by moonlight coming through a window or silhouetted against a window.

“We’re not spending a lot of time trying to fill in the shadows. In fact, we spend most of our time creating more shadows than exist naturally,” he points out.

Jason Bateman, who plays Marty, is also an executive producer and directed the first two and last two episodes of Season 1. Early on, he, along with Kutchins and Pepe Avila del Pino, who shot the pilot, hashed out the desired look for the show, leaning into a very cyan and dark color palette — and leaning in pretty strongly. “Most people think of [this area as] the South, where it’s warm and bright, sweaty and hot. We just wanted to lean into something more nuanced, like a storm was constantly brewing,” Kutchins explains. “Jason really pushed that aesthetic hard across every department.”

Alas, that was made even more difficult since the show was mainly shot outdoors in the Atlanta area, and a good deal of work went into reacting to Mother Nature and transforming the locations to reflect the show’s Ozark mountain setting. “I spent an immense amount of time and effort killing direct sunlight, using a lot of negative fill and huge overheads, and trying to get rid of that direct, harsh sun,” says Kutchins. “Also, there are so many windows inside the Byrde house that it’s essentially like shooting an exterior location; there’s not a lot of controlled light, so you again are reacting and adapting.”

Kutchins shoots the series on a Panasonic VariCam, which he typically underexposes by a stop or two, mining the darker part of the sensor, “the toe of the exposure curve.” And by doing so, he is able to bring out the dirtier, more naturalistic, grimy parts of the image, rather than something that looks clean and polished. “Something that has a little bit of texture to it, some grit and grain, something that’s evocative of a memory, rather than something that looks like an advertisement,” he says.

To further achieve the look, Kutchins uses an in-camera LUT that mimics old Fuji film stock. “Then we take that into post,” he says, giving kudos to his colorist, Company 3’s Tim Stipan, who he says has been invaluable in helping to develop the “vibe” of the show. “As we moved along through Season 1 and into Season 2, he’s been instrumental in enhancing the footage.”

A lot of Kutchins’ work occurs in post, as the raw images captured on set are so different from the finals. Insofar as the digital intermediate is concerned, significant time is spent darkening parts of the frame, brightening small sections of the frame and working to draw the viewer into the frame. “I want people to be leaning on the edge of their seat, kind of wanting to look inside of the screen and poke their head in for a look around,” Kutchins says. “So I do a lot of vignetting and darkening of the edges, and darkening specific things that I think are distracting.”

Nevertheless, there is a delicate balance he must maintain. “I talk about the darkness of Ozark, but I am trying to ride that fine line of how dark it can be but still be something that’s pleasant to watch. You know, where you’re not straining to see the actor’s face, where there’s just enough information there and the frame is just balanced enough so your eyes feel comfortable looking at it,” he explains. “I spend a lot of time creating a focal point in the frame for your eyes to settle on — highlighting certain areas and letting some areas go black, leaving room for mystery in every frame.”

When filming, Kutchins and his crew use Steadicams, cranes, dollies and handheld. He also uses Cooke Optics’ S4 lenses, which he tends to shoot wide open, “to let the flaws and character of the lenses shine through.”

Before selecting the Panasonic VariCam, Kutchins and his group tested other cameras. Because of Netflix’s requirement for 4K, that immediately ruled out the ARRI Alexa, which is Kutchins’ preferred camera. “But the Panasonic ended up shining,” he adds.

In Ozark, the urban family is pitted against nature, and thus, the natural elements around them need to feel dangerous, Kutchins points out. “There’s a line in the first season about how people drown in the lake all the time. The audience should always feel that; when we are at the water’s edge, that someone could just slip in and disappear forever,” he says. “So, the natural elements play a huge role in the inspiration for the lighting and the feel of the show.”

Jason Blount:The Goldbergs
A polar opposite to Ozark in almost every way, The Goldbergs is a single-camera comedy sitcom set in the ’80s about a caring but grumpy dad, an overbearing mother and three teens — the oldest, a popular girl; the middle one, who fancies himself a gifted athlete and strives to be popular; and the youngest, a geek who is obsessed with filmmaking, as he chronicles his life and that of his family on film. The series is created and executive-produced by Adam F. Goldberg and is based on his own life and childhood, which he indeed captured on film while growing up.

The series is filmed mostly on stage, with the action taking place within the family home or at the kids’ schools. For the most part, The Goldbergs is an up-lit, broad comedy. The colors are rich, with a definite nod to the vibrant palette of the ’80s. “Our colorist, Scott Ostrowsky [from Level 3], has been grading the show from day one. He knows the look of the show so well that by the time I sit with him, there are very few changes that have to be made,” says Blount.

The Goldbergs began airing in 2013 and is now entering its sixth season. And the series’ current cinematographer, Jason Blount, has been involved since the start, first serving as the A camera/Steadicam operator before assuming the role of DP for the Season 1 finale — for a total of 92 episodes now and counting.

As this was a Sony show for ABC, the plan was to shoot with a Sony PMW-F55 CineAlta 4K digital camera, but at the time, it did not record at a fast enough frame rate for some of the high-speed work the production wanted. So, they ended up using the ARRI Alexa for Season 1. Blount took over as DP full time from Season 2 onward, and the decision was made to switch to the F55 for Season 2, as the frame rate issue had been resolved.

“The look of the show had already been established, and I wanted to make sure that the transition between cameras was seamless,” says Blount. “Our show is all about faces and seeing the comedy. From the onset, I was very happy with the Sony F55. The way the camera renders skin tone, the lack of noise in the deep shadows and the overall user-friendly nature of the camera impressed me from the beginning.”

Blount points to one particular episode where the F55 really shined. “The main character was filming a black-and-white noir-style home movie. The F55 handled the contrast beautifully. The blacks were rich and the highlights held onto detail very well,” he says. “We had a lot of smoke, hard light directly into the lens, and really pushed the limits of the sensor. I couldn’t have been happier with the results.”

In fact, the camera has proved its mettle winter, spring, summer and fall. “We’ve used it in the dead of winter, at night in the rain and during day exterior [shots] at the height of summer when it’s been over 100 degrees. It’s never skipped a beat.”

Blount also commends Keslow Camera in Los Angeles, which services The Goldbergs’ cameras. In addition, the rental house has accessorized the F55 camera body with extra bracketry and integrated power ports for more ease of use.

Due to the fast pace at which the show is filmed — often covering 10-plus pages of script a day — Blount uses Angenieux Optimo zoom lenses. “The A camera has a full set of lightweight zooms covering 15mm to 120mm, and the B camera always has the [Optimo] 24-290,” he says. “The Optimo lenses and F55 are a great combination, making it easy to move fast and capture beautiful images.”

Blount points out that he also does all the Steadicam work on the show, and with the F55 being so lightweight, compact and versatile, it makes for a “very comfortable camera in Steadicam mode. It’s perfect to use in all shooting modes.”

The Goldbergs’ DP always shoots with two cameras, sometimes three depending on the scene or action. And, there is never an issue of the cameras not matching, according to Blount. “I’m not a big fan of the GoPro image in the narrative world, and I own a Sony a7S. It’s become my go-to camera for mounts or tight space work on the show, and works perfectly with the F55.”

And, there is something to say for consistency, too. “Having used the same camera and lens package for the past five seasons has made it easy to keep the look consistent for The Goldbergs,” says Blount. “At the beginning of this season, I looked at shooting with the new Sony Venice. It’s a fantastic-looking camera, and I love the options, like the variable ND filters, more color temperature options and the dual ISO, but the limit of 60fps at this stage was a deal-breaker for me; we do a fair amount of 72fps and 120fps.”

“If only the F55 had image stabilization to take out the camera shake when the camera operators are laughing so hard at the actors’ performances during some scenes. Then it would be the perfect camera!” he says with a laugh himself.


Karen Moltenbrey is a longtime writer and editor in the CG and post industries.