Tag Archives: Stargate Studios

The A-List: James L. Brooks on his latest film The Edge of Seventeen

By Iain Blair

James L. Brooks, the legendary writer/director/producer, probably has a reinforced mantelpiece in his home. If not, he could probably use one. After all, he’s Hollywood royalty — a three-time Academy Award winner and 20-time Emmy Award-winner whose films include Broadcast News, Terms of Endearment, As Good as It Gets and Jerry Maguire.

Brooks, who began his career as a writer, produced television hits such as Taxi, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, Lou Grant, The Tracy Ullman Show and The Simpsons. He produced his newest film, The Edge of Seventeen, for writer and first-time director Kelly Fremon Craig.

Writer Iain Blair (left) with James Brooks.

A coming-of-age comedy, it stars Hailee Steinfeld and Haley Lu Richardson as inseparable best friends attempting to navigate high school. Along with acting vets Kyra Sedgwick and Woody Harrelson, the behind-the-scenes team on The Edge of Seventeen includes DP Doug Emmett (The One I Love, HBO’s Togetherness) and editor Tracy Wadmore-Smith, ACE (About Last Night, How Do You Know).

I talked to Brooks about making the film and why post is everything.

You’ve made such a diverse slate of films. What do you look for in a project?
A writer with a specific voice. That’s always the main thing.

I heard that you worked on this script with Kelly for four years. Was that unusually long?
Unfortunately not (laughs)! This is up there, but I’ve never done less than four years on any of my own films when I direct, so that’s how I work. On this, it became more about what Kelly was about to do than what she did. I urged research on her, and she turned out to be gifted at it.

She got groups of young women of this age together and she was very empathetic and she asked great questions, and we’d look at the video, and it started to give us a sense of mission and responsibility. Then about two years in, she turned in this draft that was just extraordinary. Here was a writer popping and a new voice emerging, and I was dazzled. Then it took two more years to cast it and get financing.

She’d never directed before. How nervous were you?
I wasn’t. You’re always nervous about the movie, but I was the one who said to her, ‘You should direct this one day,’ and she told me she’d been trying to figure out how to sell herself for the job. I believe in writer/directors, as once you’ve done the script, you’ve seen a version of it.

You’ve mentored so many first-time directors over the years, including Cameron Crowe for Say Anything and Wes Anderson on Bottle Rocket. What have you learned from all that?
That it’s good to back writers of real ability. In Cameron’s case, he was a noteworthy screenwriter when he directed for the first time. From the start, we knew Wes was going to direct, and he felt he’d have died if he didn’t. It’s always the writing first, then that need to direct.

EDGE OF SEVENTEENDo you like the post process?
I not only love it — I think that post is what filmmaking really is. Editing is where you make the film. Everything else —all the prep and the shoot — is just the raw material you then shape into the actual film.

Where did you do the post?
We did it all in LA. We rented space for all the editorial, and used Wildfire for finishing.

You’ve worked with editor Tracy Wadmore-Smith before on the rom-com How Do You Know (Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson, Paul Rudd), which you directed. Tell us about the relationship and how it worked.
She was absolutely brilliant, as we were a long time editing, and it wasn’t always easy with two of us in the room. But you try to find “it.” You’re not trying to just get your way. You’re trying to find the movie. That’s what it is. You start off with a firm idea of the movie you want to make, and then in post, you’re forced to come to grips with the movie you’ve actually made. And they’re not supposed to be the same thing.

That’s the thing about actors and what they bring to the script. You can’t have that many people involved in the shoot and not have the whole movie redefined in some way. We shot in Vancouver, and Technicolor did the dailies. Then it was back to LA. I was there with Tracey pretty much every day, and I love editing. It’s exciting. It’s everything. It’s a roller coaster. Editing is hitting your head against a brick wall until it gives.

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEENEditing’s changed so much technically since you began.
Totally! I did my first films with people wearing white gloves and carefully handling the film and all the bins, and when you made a cut, you had to wait a couple of minutes until it was made. Then digital and instant gratification arrived, and that meant you can see every version of every scene, given the time — but you don’t have the time to do that.

I’m a huge digital fan. It’s like electric lights. Who wants to go back? It’s such a different process that the result has to be different. Look at the whole religion of lighting a set — it’s been changed forever as you can now do so much in post. There’s almost nothing you can’t do in post now. So I’ve lived through the revolution, and we always schedule more time for editing than we think we might need. This took a good six months to cut.

Don’t you like to preview?
I do. I’m a big believer, and they always result in more tweaking and refinement to the film. And that went great. We were very lucky as we were previewing very well, but Kelly and I both felt we needed a couple of extra scenes in order to really get the ending right, and STX, the financing company, gave us three extra days to shoot them and solve the problem. Kelly came up with this last shot that means everything to me. It’s the absolute honest true ending we needed.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
We did all the mixing at Wildfire, that has an Atmos stage with an Avid S6. Kelly was brilliant at finding and using the songs — there are over 30 — which form the great backdrop to the story. But the score was tricky. My friend Hans Zimmer agreed to produce it, and he brought in this wonderful composer from Iceland, Atli Orvarsson, who came up with the perfect theme, and that was the last piece of the puzzle. Then we spent a final week fine-tuning the mix with re-recording mixers Kevin O’Connell, Deb Adair and Chris Carpenter. It’s hard to over state the importance of sound. It’s always huge, especially when you’re trying to be real.

Director Kelly Fremon Craig and James Brooks on set.

This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece, but there are a few.
They were all done by Stargate Studios, and we couldn’t get the damn phone right! That killed us for a while, as there was an emoji we just couldn’t get right. Sometimes it’s the simplest stuff that’s the hardest.

How important was the DI on this and where did you do it?
We did it at Wildfire with colorist Andrew Balis, and Kelly and the DP were more involved in that than I was. The DI is hugely important.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry since you began?
Obviously, the digital revolution, but also things like women crew members and getting over the tendency to say, ‘Can I help with that?’ when the grip’s a woman (Laughs)! What hasn’t changed is that script is everything, passion counts, and post is the most creative part of filmmaking.

Why haven’t you directed more films recently, and what’s next?
I’ve just been so busy with these other projects, but I’ve been working on a script for several years — which is normal for me — and hope to do that. But the price you pay to direct is to go legally insane – meaning, you lose touch with the world and people you love. And that’s a high price to pay.

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.

Master Key shoots VFX plates in 4K for ‘Heroes Reborn’

Remember when NBC’s Heroes took television audiences by storm back in 2006? Well, it’s back, sort of, thanks to Heroes Reborn, featuring a new cast of heroes and villains, but for those Heroes purists, we say, “Don’t fret!” Some of the main characters from the first iteration are featured as well.

Each week, as you can imagine, a huge number of visual effects shots have to be created for the show. This is where Elan and Rajeev Dassani, co-founders of Master Key Productions, come in. While Stargate Studios is the primary VFX house for the show, Master Key supports the visual effects work by shooting plates.

As well as knowing exactly what is needed from production to the visual effects process, Master Key coordinates shoots all over the world for networks such as USA Channel, NBC, ABC and FX Networks. They specialize in producing shoots with low overhead and have shot in dozens of locations, including Hong Kong, Colombia, Paris, London, Venezuela, New York, Washington DC, Rio De Janeiro, Iceland and Istanbul.

Dassani has created VFX master plates for some of television’s most popular shows, including Scandal, Covert Affairs and How to Get Away With Murder.

For Heroes Reborn, he was tasked with shooting a variety of VFX plates around the world, including Tokyo and Iceland. To handle this, he and his crew decided to use the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K.

3In Two Places at Once
Ren Shimosawa (Toru Uchikado) is one of the main characters in the Heroes world. For the first episode of Heroes Reborn, Rajeev Dassani set up production in downtown Tokyo to film a variety of angles from a busy city square where the VFX artists would later put Ren, who was actually being filmed against a greenscreen in Toronto.

“We love to go beyond just the basic angles,” Elan says. “So we need a high-quality camera to fit into unusual places and weird angles. The audience needs to truly believe that Ren is in Tokyo. The size and ergonomics of the Production Camera 4K make it perfect for setting up these shots, and we can pack it up quick, run to another angle and start shooting. For a weekly drama that is always on a tight deadline, the efficiency that the camera allows is important.”

Shooting a general background shot is not difficult, says Elan, but shooting good VFX plates and element shots for high-level visual effects work is difficult, especially on a show with the high expectations of Heroes Reborn. Each shot needs to fit into the specific scene and give a real sense of seamlessly fitting in with the storyline. Every angle has to be precisely set up, and each shot needs to have enough data in it for VFX artists to be as creative as they need to be.

“The VFX house needed a number of background plates and element shots of a busy square in Tokyo,” explains Elan. “We had to make sure that we hit every angle possible. For the Tokyo shots, because there would be so much VFX work done, we had to make sure that we captured each one with as much data as possible. The VFX artists need to be able to manipulate every part of the image, and shooting in RAW on top of the great dynamic range of the Production Camera 4K gave us what we needed.


For scenes that took place in Iceland the brothers shot for days — for Epsiode 103 and 104—mostly with the Arri Amira. They captured snowmobiles approaching a working helicopter ad a guy jumping out of the helicopter into the snow. They also doubles for two of the characters trekking across arctic plains and cliffs.”

Masters Key gets involved early, attending the VFX meeting in Toronto, with Stargate’s supervisor, Kris Wood, describing what is needed. This is usually accompanied by storyboards from the director. “Then we basically hash out the shot list with Stargate and the director. Stargate is then looped in once we have location photos, lens questions, etc.,” explains Elan. “They give some direction, but they can’t do too much since the on the ground realities are so specific. We make a lot of choices on the ground.”

Adds Rajeev, “When it comes to planning for shooting for VFX, the most important thing is planning… and being ready to change the plan based on the reality of the location. We meticulously work out what the shots are hoping to be, but then on arrival there are always different conditions. Because we understand the technical needs, we can adjust and still get what is needed to make the shot work. It took dozens of takes in the helicopter in Tokyo, both flying over the square and zooming at just the right speed, and trying to aim for the light change so we had plenty of people crossing in the square — it was never exactly what was planned, but ended being a great shot that worked well.”

While currently on winter hiatus, Heroes Reborn will begin airing again on NBC on Thursday, January 7.

Quick Chat: Stargate Studios president Darren Frankel

Stargate Studios, a visual effects and high-end production company, has 10 offices in seven countries where they work on television, features, commercials and special venue projects. Their credits are impressive and include work on GracepointThe Walking Dead, Grey’s Anatomy, Ray Donovan, House of Lies and 12 Monkeys.

Stargate has been around for 25 years, which in this business is a rarity. We checked in with president Darren Frankel to find out how they have survived, thrived and more.

You’ve hit the quarter of a century mark, which is impressive. How have you not only survived in a very difficult market but also thrived and expanded around the world? Any wisdom to share?
You have to constantly reinvent yourself and your process. The industry is constantly changing and producers, directors, studio executives, etc. are looking for partners to help them stay ahead of the curve. We are always looking at new ways of doing things and which tools exist to allow us to do the things that we couldn’t achieve before. To stay current, you always have to be ready to break the model and improve it. You also need to look at your client’s problems as your own so that you are thinking along with them rather than just being reactive.

Can you talk about your different locations and is different work done at each or does the work at all locations mirror the others?
We have 10 offices — Los Angeles, Atlanta, Vancouver, Toronto, Mexico City, London, Berlin, Cologne, Malta and Dubai. At the crux of each facility is local work. All the facilities are interconnected using a proprietary system known as VOS (Visual Operating System). This inter-connectivity allows artists to share work and for VFX supervisors, producers and coordinators to communicate with greater ease. The business has grown internationally, so Stargate’s network of facilities also allows us to put talent in place regardless of location and bring that talent to the projects that need it.

Before and After: An example of work Stargate did for the show Gracepoint.

Can you talk about some of the work you have done and are working on currently?
Currently we’re working approximately 25 different projects around the world, a sampling of which includes The Walking Dead, Dig, Grey’s Anatomy, Ray Donovan, Damien, El Principe and a host of other projects that I wish I was at liberty to talk about!

Any one that you are particularly proud of. Can you describe?
Every project brings its own set of challenges and some of the work that I’m most proud of is work that nobody would ever know we even did because it’s invisible. At the end of the day, a company is really about its people, and I’m extremely proud of all of them.

101-138-10_before second
Before and After: More work for Gracepoint.

What are your main tools?
Our main software tools, in addition to the aforementioned VOS, are After Effects, Maya, LightWave, Premiere, Mocha Pro, RealFlow, Photoshop, Golaem and a host of other plugins and tools. In addition we use all kinds of cameras and production tools because real is always best when feasible, so we often shoot our own elements as well.

You are also using Signiant’s Media Shuttle to work with all your locations seamlessly. Can you walk us through that workflow and describe how you were doing this before Media Shuttle?
The business has become global. Shows often shoot in one city, do editorial in another city, and desire to gain tax incentives from yet another city. The ability to move and share data across Stargate’s network has become of paramount importance. Using our internal VOS system, data can be moved through the network automatically using preference settings rather than manual human interaction. It will even place files in the same directory on the network in a different city, without relying on moving files to a shared folder, and then having to manually disperse those files to their proper locations once the transfer is complete. We have moved from using FTP along our private VPN network and externally to clients, to Signiant’s Media Shuttle.

The two major reasons we did this are:
1. File Transfer Speed: Media Shuttle optimizes the bandwidth of users on upload and download to make files move faster between locations, and helps to mitigate the need for shuttling drives from client editorial and post facilities.

2. Security: Password-protected FTP sites are only so secure, and the way Signiant packages files makes them less susceptible to being compromised in any way.

Internally it didn’t create more work on our end but provided a significant net gain.

Check out the Stargate website for reels and more credits.

VFX house Stargate Studios names Thayer Jester VP of biz dev

VFX and production house Stargate Studios has brought on Thayer Jester as VP of Business Development. Jester’s responsibilities will include developing new business opportunities and strategic relationships for Stargate in the North American market.

Jester’s 15-year career in the entertainment industry includes executive positions at Ascent Media Group and The Image Resolution where she was responsible for developing and securing new accounts with clients such as Walt Disney Pictures, Paramount, Columbia Tri-Star, Lionsgate Entertainment and NBC Universal.

“I look forward to leveraging my many years of sales, business development and marketing background in helping the further expansion of this global company,” reports Jester. “My initial focus is to support the already solidified relationships that Stargate has created while cultivating new market opportunities for future revenue growth. My new role will also enable me to pursue my true passion, which is visual effects.”

Current projects at the studio include The Walking Dead in Atlanta; Grey’s Anatomy, House of Lies and Ray Donovan in Los Angeles and 12 Monkeys and Haven in Toronto.  In London, the studio is working on Apocalypse Slough and in Malta the popular Spanish series El Principe is in production. Stargate Mexico recently opened to work on Queen of the South.