It’s been quite a year for Japanese auteur Ryusuke Hamaguchi. Two of his films have gained international plaudits and multiple awards, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car.
The former film won the Jury Grand Prize at Berlin, while the latter, which was based on a short story by Murakami Haruki, took three prizes at Cannes, including best screenplay for Hamaguchi and co-writer Oe Takamasa. (Hamaguchi also co-scripted Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s AFA-winner Wife of a Spy.)
Before his 2015 breakthrough film, Happy Hour, his films struggled to find distribution, and many are still hard to come by outside Japan. “At best, they may periodically resurface as part of retrospectives,” Ren Scateni commented at HyperAllergic.
But there’s a definite method to how Hamaguchi constructs his stories. Scateni continues her analysis, “Throughout the years, Hamaguchi has developed a peculiar directorial approach, which draws from both stage production and nonfiction filmmaking.
“He then combined this with a documentary sensibility, informed by the trilogy of films he made with Kō Sakai about survivors of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami — a disaster that echoes through the rest of his filmography, from Asako I & II to Drive My Car.”
Drive My Car tells the story of Yusuke Kafuku, a renowned stage actor and director. Two years after his wife’s unexpected death, he receives an offer to direct a production of Uncle Vanya at a theater festival in Hiroshima. There, he meets Misaki Watari, a taciturn young woman assigned by the festival to chauffeur him in his red Saab 900.
As the production’s premiere approaches, tensions mount amongst the cast and crew, not least between Yusuke and Koji Takatsuki, a handsome TV star who shares an unwelcome connection to Yusuke’s late wife. Forced to confront painful truths raised from his past, Yusuke begins — with the help of his driver — to face the haunting mysteries his wife left behind.
Filmmaker Magazine, in its interview with Hamaguchi, wanted to explore his theater and documentary inclinations. “Through the theater milieu, Drive My Car gets fairly deep into the weeds on the process of directing actors, and it lead me to reflect on how you approach staging and establishing trust.”
Hamaguchi’s answer reveals his method, “Generally speaking, I will ask my cast to read the script multiple times until the whole script becomes almost spontaneous for them.
“What I try to keep in mind is to give the actor the best environment, the best situation for them, so that they can be relaxed in front of the camera. I think standing in front of the camera is a scary experience, and even though you get used to it, there will always be an amount fear that will remain. But with this fear, I try to give them the best conditions possible.
“Once we have this trusting relationship, I just give them the freedom of doing what they feel like doing.
“When we are actually shooting the film, the actors don’t really have a choreography in each and every scene. They’re quite free. Of course, we have general rules of ‘it starts here and ends here and this is the thing you have to do,’ but otherwise actors are really free to move and express what they feel at that moment.
“In this movie the cameraman’s framing was pretty much perfect even in unpredictable situations. And each time you are able to make a good image, I always think it’s a coincidence, because the fact that the framing was good at that moment or the emotional communication was good at that moment is always a coincidence.”
Drive My Car is known for the curative power of moving (in this instance inside a Saab 900) and how it wrests the secrets from the car’s inhabitants in the movie. Hamaguchi cites Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami as his inspiration. “His films have very striking scenes where there’s a driver and the surroundings are changing a lot. And at the same time, the relationships between the characters are changing as well.
“I began to think that this image was somehow a condensation of life. It’s also the same with Wim Wenders and all of his transportation scenes, where a relationship changes and the fact that the surroundings change at the same time helps you understand that something is evolving. This is what inspires me the most.”
Variety reported that the two award-winning Hamaguchi films have won over not only foreign festival programmers and critics, who have given them rave reviews, but also buyers in markets not often friendly to Asian art films. One is Italy, where local distributor Tucker Film released Wheel in August and Drive My Car in September, starting in Rome.
Head of acquisitions Sabrina Baracetti, who is also the director of the Udine Far East Film Festival, where Wheel In August screened in late June, cites the Western-style theatricality of the film’s three-part structure, while comparing Hamaguchi’s “mastery of spoken cinema” to that of postwar Golden Age titans Ozu and Naruse.
“But he also reminds me of Ingmar Bergman, with whom he shares a power of dialogue, in both words and silences,” she adds. “Hamaguchi is a director and scriptwriter who knows how to harmonize the spirit of East and West, that’s the reason why his cinema has an appeal to Italian audiences.”
Want more? In the video below, watch Hamaguchi in conversation with TIFF programmer Giovanna Fulvi for a Q&A held in advance of the Drive My Car premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival:
Amarcord: Paolo Sorrentino Remembers in “The Hand of God”
From Academy Award-winning writer and director Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty), comes the poetical story of a young man’s heartbreak and liberation in 1980s Naples, Italy. The Hand of God follows Fabietto Schisa (Filippo Scotti), an awkward Italian teen whose life and vibrant, eccentric family are suddenly upended — first by the electrifying arrival of soccer legend Diego Maradona to play for the local team, and then by a shocking accident which leaves him orphaned at age 17.
The Netflix-produced film is deeply personal for Sorrentino while universal in its themes of fate and family, sports and cinema, love and loss.
Much like Kenneth Branagh, who wrote and directed Belfast, a look back in nostalgia to his youth during the pandemic, Sorrentino finally put the script together in 2020 for a story he had had in mind to tell for decades.
“Nostalgia — like melancholy and solitude, when they are not pathological — are feelings I harbor because I grew old when I was young,” he told a French audience, as reported in Variety.
“It’s nostalgia for a youth I never had. It’s the worst kind because it’s nostalgia for something I never had but it’s also the best because reality might have been disappointing, so I can make it up in movies.”
He added, “I am afraid of chaos and reality. That’s why it took me 20 years to make this film: Naples may be a very cinematic city, but it’s too chaotic.”
While the drama is led by fictional characters, there are real-life character who surface, too, notably the filmmaker Antonio Capuano (Ciro Capano).
“He was one of the few people who believed in me when I was not believing in myself,” Sorrentino told IndieWire. “Before I met him, I thought filmmaking was too big for me. I wasn’t sure I deserved to become a filmmaker myself. He taught me the need to rely on my instincts.”
The Hand of God premiered earlier this year at the Venice Film Festival, where it picked up the Grand Jury Prize and earned lead actor Scotti the Marcello Mastroianni Award.
“The film is really based on real facts of my life and the reality of my life when I was young,” says Sorrentino. “I happened to live in Naples when Maradona arrived, and I witnessed the whole scenes that greeted him. And my brother did indeed have an audition for a Fellini film. So I’m just putting in the film things that happen in my life. There are a few things that have the time or dates changed for narrative or dramatisation purposes. But the feelings are always authentic.”
Maradona is the late Argentine soccer player Diego Maradona, one of the greatest footballers to have ever lived. The film’s title refers to Maradona’s notorious goal in the 1986 World Cup semi-finals against England, where he cheated by using his hand to score what is perhaps the best individual goal ever.
“Maradona inspired me to become a film-maker,” Sorrentino explains in The Irish Times. “Maradona was my first contact with spectacle — with entertainment — because he was indeed a sportsman, a soccer player, but also an entertainer. It was my first contact with a high form of entertainment. That was my way of getting in touch with art. And not being able to become a soccer player myself, I tried to make films.”
The Hand of God was shot by cinematographer Daria D’Antonio, who has worked for many years as part of Sorrentino’s camera crew including on Il Divo and The Great Beauty. She is also from Naples, as she explained in an interview with NAB Amplify.
“Both Paolo and myself felt this deep and affectionate connection with places in Naples. I wanted to show them the way I remember and to be faithful to his memory,” she said.
“The concept was to have a very simple look for the film and not to stress the fact that this is a set in the 1980s. We don’t make a feature of it any more than the costumes and set dressing give an impression of the period. We wanted to recreate truth and not do anything over the top visually.”
For this delicate portrayal, D’Antonio selected the RED Monstro paired with ARRI Signature primes. One scene, in which Fabietto enjoys a summer lunch with his family at a country house, was filmed with four Monstro cameras.
“It was shot almost like an action movie,” she says. “The scene has 15 actors and there’s lots of crisscrossing dialogue. Paolo wanted the drama to have the pace of a comedy or action so he wanted a lot of coverage. Plus, we shot outdoors over four to five days with the weather changing so multiple cameras helped give us continuity in the edit.”
This scene, however, was an anomaly. The overall aesthetic was to rein in the director’s typically swirling camerawork for something much quieter and unfussy. There are very few Steadicam or handheld shots.
“It’s a camera that listens,” D’Antonio says of the RED Monstro. “The camera is invisible. My aim was to always respect the sensitive nature of the story, always to focus on the people and the emotion of the scene. We wanted to capture very particular moments, and to avoid large-scale visual constructions in which such moments might get lost.”
“The Souvenir Part II:” Portrait of the Artist As a Young Woman
Writer and director Joanna Hogg first realized that actors simply reading her script wasn’t the way she wanted to hear her story told when she had written her 2007 movie Unrelated. “I wrote Unrelated in a conventional way, and then on day two or three of the shoot, I realized I wasn’t having much fun carrying the script around and getting the actors to say exactly what I had written on the page,” Hogg says.
“A lot of my directing has to do with listening and hearing rhythm and how people say a line, so I just didn’t like what I heard,” she continues.
The Souvenir Part II is Hogg’s fifth feature, a follow-up to 2019’s The Souvenir. Actor Tilda Swinton, who appeared in both parts, summed up Hogg’s process from her point of view in a Q&A held at Film at Lincoln Center. “What Joanna does is make authors of all of us. So you are carrying the narrative and every time you decide to speak, it’s like I’m doing now. I know roughly what I want to say but I’m having to bring the words out and encounter my own inarticulacy and that’s what people do.
“Very rarely in films that are beautifully written by great screenwriters do you actually see, particularly very good performers, do that. You see them being very articulate all the time and saying very written things. So what you get when you have these raw animal people blundering around in a set of Joanna’s is you get people really alive.
“The experience from our point of view is incredibly lively and creative. The thing that I find very interesting as an objective eye is when I first saw the cut and was amazed at how precise it was, given that it is drummed up in this mystical fashion, it’s got a lot to do with how beautifully it’s cut.
“Somehow, around take four, there’s a sort of rhythm, it’s like making music. People know enough what they’re doing but they’re still on their toes that there’s this perfect elision and that’s the take.”
Hogg expanded on her process in an interview with MovieMaker Magazine. “I’ll design a setting for a scene, and then the words come out of them because of the situation that they’re in,” Hogg said of working with actors on set. “And then we’ll develop it over a number of takes. So the first take will often be very rough and quite chaotic. Sometimes I like that, and that goes in the cut. Or it’ll get sculpted, so by take 11, everything is more streamlined.”
“Part II jumps off into new territory for me that isn’t necessarily based on how I was as a student,” Hogg explained. “There’s a lot more invention, which is maybe where the feeling of experiment comes from. I didn’t feel like I was stuck with my own life. It travels in different directions, in new directions, and that felt really exciting.
“So it had this sort of chaos. It was fun and really challenging, every day we were shooting what felt like a different film in a way.”
The film was inspired by Hogg’s graduation film from film school, she told The Film Stage. “Where it differs is that my graduation film from film school didn’t speak about the relationship that I’d been through. It was personal but in a different way. It was about self-identification and accepting yourself, on some level, but it didn’t deal with the relationship.
“I knew that I wanted Julie to make this film. I knew that I wanted her to examine the relationship from Part I, and that was partly the experience of shooting Part I, making me think about that.”
Hogg always conceived of The Souvenir as a diptych, with an A and a B side, so the idea of a sequel, however unorthodox for an indie drama, was baked into the concept. Still, given the open-ended way she generates her films — without much scripted dialogue, leaving ample space for improv both on her part and by cast and crew — that didn’t mean she knew where Part II would end up.
“I initially wrote both parts at the same time, intending to shoot them together,” Hogg explains, “only it didn’t work out that way. So, then I rewrote Part II just before we shot it. It did get quite confusing, having to slip into the second before really making up my mind about what I felt about the first one. But as my films always are, it was a process of evolution.”
The story rejoins film student Julie Harte days after the close of the first chapter. In the raw aftermath of her tragic affair with Anthony, she is in free-fall, just starting to reckon with who she might become on the other side of it. Julie re-enters the world as she knew it — school, friends, parents, lovers, her art and work — but the way she sees that world is new.
As usual for Hogg, the writing of The Souvenir never involved a conventional shooting script. Instead, there was an initial document more akin to a treatment — with little dialogue but rife with vivid descriptions, supplemented by exhaustive, often deeply personal documentation: music, art, films, books, photographs, even diaries and therapist’s notes.
“In hindsight I’m so glad I didn’t shoot the two together, because so much changed,” Hogg reflected. “The idea that Julie was going to make her student film about Anthony was there in early drafts but not really felt-through in any complete sense. Only much later did it become something where the audience experiences not just what Julie makes, but what she dreams — and the actual dreamscape kept developing as the shoot went along.”
Cinematographer David Raedeker, who shot The Souvenir Part 1, explains how Part II was continued. “We used a lot of different film formats,” he notes. “We used digital 16 millimeter and film 16 millimeter, digital and film 35, and other formats as well, including Hi8 and archive footage of Joanna’s on Super 8.
“It feels woven together, I think, but each of these different textures really add something, from the real to the hyperreal, and nothing’s arbitrary.”
Rob Hardy, BSC, ASC, a British cinematographer known for his work on “Mission Impossible: Fallout” and “Ex Machina,” shot on the Sony F65 and F55, and “DEVS,” shot on the VENICE, recently had the chance to try the new VENICE 2, creating a short film as a real-world test for how he would use the camera on an actual project.
Hardy recently used the new Sony VENICE 2 digital cinema camera for something of a trial by fire, with a short project, entitled “Venezia,” that would mimic many of the challenges of a complicated digital video shoot.
Hardy explaina: “What we’re doing is putting it through its paces on a set using actors with a piece of drama with all of the issues and problems that may come with that. In other words, time pressures, having to move quite quickly in terms of lighting those things. I really wanted to see how the camera would perform in that context because that’s essentially how I would use it.”
He said, “The opportunity to use VENICE 2 is actually a really fantastic one because it’s a real test. I mean, that’s essentially what this is. We’ve designed [this shoot] so that we’re effectively testing this camera for the very first time in a real filmmaking scenario.”
Hardy’s “Venezia” is a lush period piece he created to leverage and showcase the camera’s wide dynamic range, color science, and natural skin tones inherited from the original VENICE, and even better low-light performance as values for dual base ISO have bumped up to 800 and 3200.
SonyCine provides basic information on the camera’s features and specs ⸺ 8.6k image sensor, improved ISO — while also illustrating better battery power management and a lighter overall package than its predecessor, the VENICE.
He adds: “This is the first time I’ve ever used that large 8.6K sensor, and we were lucky enough to get some anamorphic lenses, for the full cinematic effect, that will really utilize that whole sensor. As a result, it was quite astonishing.”
Also quoted in the piece is Peter Wignall, Steadicam operator on “Venezia,” who said that the camera was light enough to use with a Steadicam rig.
Seconding that is Chris Williams of drone operator Flying Pictures, who also noted the camera’s skimpy battery appetite. “I was expecting to be changing [batteries] between each flight but no, we’ve done two flights and I’ve still got 50% left on the [drone’s] batteries, which are powering the gimbal, the camera, the video link and the lens control as well. It’s a much more compact package within the gimbal.”
He adds, “The new VENICE 2 makes flying it on a drone possible. It’s going to last forever in the air.”
Savage Beauty: The Visuals for “The Power of the Dog”
About half way into Jane Campion’s new movie, the knot tightens. It is imperceptible, such is the pace of the way in which tension is built, but it grips, much like the onscreen portrayal of cowboys painstakingly braiding new rope from rawhide. Given that this is a Jane Campion film, the metaphor is surely not coincidental.
Based on the 1967 book written by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog contains all the trapping of an archetypal Western but deviates dramatically from cliché.
In his review for The New Yorker, film critic Anthony Lane notes that the film’s title is taken from the 22nd Psalm in the King James Bible: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.”
“As the movie ends,” Lane posits, “you can’t help asking yourself: Who exactly is the dog, and who’s the darling?”
“Our main inspiration in terms of other films was A Man Escaped (1956) by Robert Bresson, where simplicity and minimalism is used to craft an incredibly tense story,” explains director of photography Ari Wegner, ACS (Lady Macbeth, Zola) and winner of this year’s TIFF Variety Artisan Award. “Everything in the film from score to color palette to wardrobe and camera movement is very unshowy. No one element and certainly not the cinematography should not be grabbing your attention.”
Yet grab it does, as The Power of the Dog seduces the audience with an accretion of detail amid the foreboding hills of Montana. Even this feels dislocated since the production shot in the Hawkdun Ranges in Central Otago in South Island, New Zealand. Its sparsely populated, grassy plains and rocky mountains proved a remarkable match for Montana.
Campion has described the deeply complex central character Phil Burbank, a brilliant but cruel, hyper-masculine cattle rancher, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, as one of the all-time great characters of American fiction. He is in an impossible situation of being an alpha male who is homophobic and also homosexual.
Wegner spent roughly a year working with Campion, location scouting, storyboarding, and developing the visual style for the film, as well as working with production designer Grant Major (Oscar winner for Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King).
“For me that was incredibly exciting,” says Wegner. “Not just the prospect of working with Jane on such an amazing story but to be able to prepare properly and spend the time to get it right. I’ve shot there before and I know how the landscape changes from season to season. It was really important for us to spend time at the location in the season that we were going to be shooting. I didn’t do any other projects in that period, familiarizing myself with the property to find the great angles and getting to know the light.”
The property is the large ranch house and outbuildings built in the style of 1920s Montana. This is a settlement on the cusp of modernization, where saddle-hardened cowboys live uneasily with cars and trains, college education and civil society of the nearby town.
“I read the book as soon as I got the call from Jane and its descriptions of the land, the house and the characters within it as well as the minute details make up a holistic world,” Wegner says.
She participated in decision-making about the location of the house and throughout the art department build ensuring that the set allowed her to best capture the interplay of shadow and light that unfolds so dramatically in the mountain ridge behind the set.
“Shooting in New Zealand can take a lot of patience and endurance to deal with really intense weather, but it’s a wonderful experience,” says the native Australian. “I’ve always loved it. It’s a landscape that gives so much. You can photograph a vast plain with a mountain range that rises up behind it as one image, which is something that is not possible in Australia.”
Wagner described the meticulous planning that went into the film to MovieMaker Magazine’s Caleb Hammond.
“It can’t be underestimated how long planning takes,” he told Hammond. “For me, it’s at least 100 hours to properly plan a film. But it’s probably like four or five hours max of storyboarding before your brain melts down.
“Jane and I did about a month one-on-one together. We went out of town close to the location. So we’re in the office with turned-off phones and emails, and just got to work. We probably had at least four weeks of full-time storyboarding. It was probably about five or six hours a day of that, and if we were to take a break, it would be like, ‘OK, let’s go for a drive and go on location to see if this plan actually works in reality.’ Or ‘Let’s go for a walk and talk about how we’re going to do some other difficult thing.’ Just being together, planning — 100 hours is the bare minimum to do it properly. And that’s one-on-one without any distractions. It’s my happy place when I’ve got that. Everything becomes easier after that.”
Planning the production, Campion and producer Tanya Seghatchian met with novelist Annie Proulx, who wrote the short story “Brokeback Mountain” and penned an afterword to Savage’s book in 2001. They discussed writing about the American West from a female writer’s perspective. Her encouragement, Campion says, was incredibly helpful in giving her the confidence to tell this very American, masculine story.
An important reference for Campion and Wegner was the work of photojournalist Evelyn Cameron, who documented the American West at the time the film is set. They also referenced Time magazine archives, featuring photography of cowboys of the era, in addition to the Ken Burns documentary series The West, which offered the team a snapshot not only of 1920s Montana, but everything that came before it.
“Cameron’s diary and photographs offered an insight into that world from a woman’s and an outsider’s perspective,” Wegner says. “Her pictures — there is one of a woman standing on a horse that feels super conceptual — evoke a strong feeling that these characters could be alive now. We wanted to create that kind of realness in the moving image.”
Any desire to shoot on film was taken out of their hands because the location was so remote dailies could not be processed in time (and the cost of insurance was prohibitive).
“There are no labs in New Zealand that can take that scale of dailies footage and the idea of shipping unprocessed camera neg is a really scary process for everyone — myself included,” she says.
She shot large-format on Alexa Mini LF paired with vintage anamorphic Ultra Panatar lenses to frame actors against the vast landscapes. The while the interiors of the ranch house, with its Swiss-style wooden architecture are dark. She bounced light off molded glass to simulate moonlight and the brooding atmosphere inside.
Toward the end a sequence takes place in a barn at night between Phil and Peter (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee). There’s so much hiding in the shadows. Everything begins to lean closer: Phil rolling a smoke in a macro closeup, a very tactile shot that unfurls into a slow build that climaxes with the sensual gesture of Peter holding the cigarette to Phil’s lips. Macro shots of rope plaiting are used to underline Phil’s desire and the sexual tension between them. The scene cuts to the horses as a way to transition out of the sensuality into the morning light, but retain the mood and let it sit in the air.
It deconstructs the myth of Marlboro Man.
“The idea of giving love and attention to a macro shot was definitely in the language of the film from the start,” Wegner says. “We know by virtue of the script how much attention we’re going to pay to things like hands on rope, playing the piano, playing the banjo. It’s an easy thing to say you’ll grab a macro but it’s harder to shoot. I had a whole list that we storyboarded and handed to (Steadicam/A Cam) Grant Adam to get. In a way there is something more iconic in the detail and texture of these shots than any of the big vistas.”
Jordan Kisner, in her profile for The New York Times, notes that even Campion’s “softest works” have a touch of what the director describes as “what was nasty, what isn’t spoken about in life.” Yet tenderness remains a through line in Campion’s films.
“Tenderness is very important to me,” she tells Kisner. “Because it is what brings me to my vulnerability, I guess. And I feel like that’s probably a hard place for me to go to, and it is the place where I feel most touched by life. I guess it’s the leading edge, you know, of my experience.”
Kisner writes that “tenderness” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when she considers Campion’s work:
“I cannot shake the image of the title character in her first feature, Sweetie, shoving porcelain horse figurines into her mouth and chewing them until blood spills out of her smile. But after a while, the tenderness starts to emerge. It’s a bit like the experience of looking for a long time at a portrait and then realizing, as you look, that the reason the portrait makes you feel so much is the way the painter worked with the negative space, the shadows, the things you don’t immediately know you’re looking at. Tenderness may not be the first thing you see in a Campion film, but it is fundamentally what she’s painting with.”
Want more? Watch Jane Campion, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst discuss the making of The Power of the Dog during a Q&A at the 2021 AFI Fest:
Campion, Cumberbatch and Dunst also appeared at Film at Lincoln Center:
You can also listen to Campion’s interview with Scott Simon for NPR, where she discusses why she was initially drawn to the story.
“I think what most impressed me was that it was clear that Thomas Savage had lived on a ranch, that this was his life,” Campion tells Scott. “This was not writ large and some sort of romantic version of the West. Thomas Savage moved to a ranch with his mother, which is the story which is really told in the film as well, and the brother of the man that his mother married was talented — like, great chess player and, you know, went to Yale, et cetera — but also, like, a really hardened cowboy and terrible bully.”
What Campion loved most about Savage’s book was the cowboys and cowboy life, which have “always been a big thing for me,” she says. “But, you know, I guess the honesty, the truth of it and the fact that it had a narrative that just grew more and more interesting and exciting. And, you know, I really didn’t know where I was with it. Like, what’s going to happen? Who’s going to be hurt? Something’s going to go wrong, I just know. And it really surprised me at the end. I had to sort of go back and check it.”
Check out the full interview in the audio player below:
“Life in Color:” Seeing Natural History in a New Light
For even the most seasoned of natural history producers, filming behavior literally in a new light is extremely exciting and introduces a whole new level of previously hidden animal communication.
The BBC, in co-production with Netflix and Australia’s Channel 9, has produced Life in Color which, using new camera filtering systems, allowed the filming of UV and polarized light in the capture of land and ocean animal behavior.
The critically acclaimed series is hosted by David Attenborough. Series producer Sharmila Choudhury, who has been involved in many of Attenborough’s productions, told camera manufacturer RED, “When we contacted David about wanting to make a series on this subject matter, he said he had wanted to make a series about color since the 1950s!”
Life in Color sets itself apart from other natural history documentary series in that it explores the extraordinary ways that animals use color for survival. The team tried to cover a range of different kinds of animals to reveal how they see and use color. “Most mammals see fewer colors; they are effectively red-green color blind. On the other hand, many birds, insects, and fish can see colors in the UV range. And some animals also use polarized light to signal with patterns that we can’t see,” explained Choudhury.
The filmmakers teamed up with scientists who study animal vision and developed specialist camera systems that allowed them to record colors in polarized light, and in the UV range.
Adam Geiger, who filmed the coral reef sequence alongside Rory McGuinness, ACS, explained the technical breakthrough that allowed the new shots, “First, it’s critical to understand how animals perceive their world, and for that, we relied on scientists Viktor Gruev at the University of Illinois, and Justin Marshall and Sam Powell at the University of Queensland’s Brain Institute,” he said.
“UV and polarization photography has been around a long time, but what makes this series unique is combining both visible light imagery and those other wavelengths in the same image.
“Rory McGuinness and I shot the underwater sequences in several locations. The stories feature small, fast-moving animals, no less extraordinary for their size, but challenging to film underwater. We spent a lot of time with our researchers to learn the behaviors of each species, to be as prepared as possible in the field.
“We chose two primary camera systems: a RED HELIUM in a Nauticam housing, and Sony F5/RAW in a Gates housing. For both systems, we had a variety of lens and port options that could take us from the macro to the micro.”
“One of the most amazing revelations came from little fish on the Great Barrier Reef,” Choudhury continued. “To our eyes, a shoal of yellow damselfish all look exactly the same. But when you view them through a UV camera, you see that some have dark spots like freckles across their faces, while others have bright patches that reflect UV light across the body. These are actually different species and the fish can use those UV colors to tell each other apart. It’s a code invisible to us — and to large predatory fish that can’t see UV, either — so these patterns avoid attracting unwanted attention.”
For other more land-based behaviors, documentary and wildlife cameraman Vianet Djenguet hiked into the forest of Park de la Lekedi in Gabon to explore the male Mandrill’s vibrant colors that assert the primate’s dominance in a group. Djenguet and a small crew spent three weeks documenting their behavior.
Due to the focus on color, the cameraman took a different approach to capturing the Mandrills. “I used a low-angle method to emphasize their size, making them look larger to accentuate their features and colors,” he says. “I also made sure I set my RED GEMINI on the IPP2 and wide gamut RGB mode to capture every color the sensor can see.”
Another segment in Life in Color filmed in West Papua, Indonesia, focused on the magnificent bird-of paradise. Tim Laman, an American ornithologist, wildlife photojournalist and filmmaker, staked out the male’s display perch for several weeks. He filmed with a RED HELIUM 8K from his hide and had numerous DSLR and GoPros set up on branches around the display site that were controlled remotely.
Birds-of-paradise never cease to amaze with their unique and bizarre displays that are unrivalled in the animal kingdom. “Our eyes have three color receptors,” Choudhury explained, “but birds have four, allowing them to see in the UV range too. UV colors are particularly bright, so they can be very effective in dark rainforest habitats. The magnificent bird-of-paradise makes sure that his plumage stands out better by cleaning his arena of any leaves. Against a plain brown canvas, his colors appear brighter and more dazzling.”
Choudhury says that the series didn’t set out to address environmental problems, but during filming they discovered that climate change was affecting the lives and colors of some animals in ways they had not expected. “Many animals living in cold habitats, such the arctic fox and mountain hare, change their brown summer coats for white winter fur to afford them better camouflage. But as our world warms and snow cover melts away earlier and earlier every year, these animals are often out of sync and mismatched with their habitats, making them more vulnerable to predation.”
Surprisingly, other species are attempting to fight back against global warming with color. On Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, almost half of the corals have died off over the last 15 years due to the warming of the seas. But in the last decade, scientists have discovered that some dying corals have started to produce bright fluorescent pigments that act as sunscreen in an effort to protect themselves.
Want more? Watch this behind-the-scenes video from Mashable, “How David Attenborough’s ‘Life in Color’ captured what the eye can’t see,” featuring series producer Sharmila Choudhury and executive producer Colette Beaudry:
The Camera in “Succession” Is a Player in the Game
By Adrian Pennington & Julian Mitchell
The cinematography of Succession is full of flaws. Yes, one of the most popular and critically acclaimed TV dramas of the moment seems to get away with imprecise framing, characters who block other characters and awkward focus pulls — all the things that in the normal world of TV styling, and especially with the kind of budget HBO puts behind a prestige show like this, would have the camera operators fired.
Of course, the flaws aren’t flaws, but carefully designed into the visual grammar of the show. The show is consciously shot as though a real camera were in the room, often at the expense of ideal compositions, and a big part of why that is has to do with how the show treats its camera like it’s a character.
Thomas Flight, a video blogger, has dissected all this in a video:
Since the show is mainly driven by dialogue between various people in a room it could easily be a very formulaic and boring, Flight says. Yet many of these conversations feel tense and exciting. It’s also a show about a group of people who aren’t particularly nice yet you find yourself getting engrossed in their drama. Why?
Because the camera crafts a character that doesn’t exist consciously on screen, but one that sits in the unconscious mind of the viewer that aids in the telling of the story.
This style of cinematography isn’t new. The pilot to the series is titled “Celebration,” which is a reference to the 1998 Danish film Festen(The Celebration) made by director Thomas Vinterberg. Festen was the first film in the Dogme95 movement that employed handheld camera work and an approach to filmmaking that attempted to mimic the conditions of documentary filmmaking.
Succession takes cues from Dogme95, cinema verité, and other styles that use documentary techniques to create fictional stories.
“Even though it is not a documentary or a mockumentary the scenes in Succession are still shot as if the camera-operator is in the room with the characters attempting to capture things as if they were real events,” Flight explains.
“A more formal narrative show would place the camera between the characters and the actors would pretend it isn’t there. But filming in an ob-doc style the cameras are forced to the sidelines. The camera operators don’t want to get in the way so they end up looking around the people in the room to get the best view. Sometimes the result is less than ideal compositions.”
If it feels like the cameras are actually in the room, it also feels like there’s an actual person operating them in that room. They are not just objective floating observers. Where they look and how they move has a subjective motivation and personality to it, Flight contends. This creates the opportunity for the character of the cameras to express itself.
Flight says the camera acts like a player in the game being played on screen.
Succession is about the schemes and machinations of the family as they each try to achieve what they want. It’s like a game. They have strategies and they talk about making “plays.” The board of this game are the spaces on screen and the conversations between characters. Often the goal is to accomplish what they want while hiding their true intentions.
“The actual lines the characters say are often meaningless while the real meaning is in the looks and glances and expressions of characters caught off guard by the camera in the room.
“All the players know they are playing this game so each character is also trying to understand what the other character’s hidden motivations are. Reactions, hidden subtle expressions, body language are all clues that the character and the audience can use to understand what the character really wants or really means.”
In the same way the characters in the scene are scanning each other for clues that betray their real intention, so are the viewers and the camera operators in the scene.
The show’s style doesn’t always stick to these rules. Once the conventions for a show are established you can break those norms to create contrast for a specific impact. For example, the energy of the cameras often matches the energy of the scene. When the family is scrambling around trying to say the right thing, the camera searches and dives as well. In other scenes where the characters feel safe or in control the camera calms down. At times the cameras use smoother movement, dollies or even slow-motion in contrast to the frenetic handheld movement in the other scenes to build tension.
Unlike nearly all of 2021’s high end episodics, the multi-award winning Succession is shot on Kodak Vision3 500T 5219 35mm film (HBO’s The White Lotus is another one from a small bunch).
Succession is shot in 1.78:1 aspect ratio on an Arricam LT and ST both with Leitz Summilux-C and Angenieux Optimo lenses. The 35mm film was scanned to 4K for the DI.
The use of film is usually prohibitively expensive on a multi-location show like this one. But the feeling was that part of the success of Succession is the suspended reality that the medium gives this heightened story of a powerful and vastly rich family in conflict.
The third season of Succession premiered recently, rewarding fans’ anticipation and continuing to chart the mutually destructive conflicts of the Roy family as they scramble for control of their patriarch’s media empire as his health starts to fail.
For Season 3, it had to be more of the same as far as the look was concerned. Light Iron colorist Sam Daley has been on the show since the pilot and agrees that the use of film was vital to the tone of the series. “A proprietary film print emulation LUT is used in the grade to maintain the look of film.”
From that pilot episode, cinematographers Patrick Capone and Christopher Norr had used “underexposure to soften the contrast.” But that wasn’t the only way that the show’s aesthetic distinguished itself as Daley further explained.
“Succession’s camera style is iconic,” Daley continued. “Handheld, snap zooms, searching, finding the actors rather than placing the camera in front of them. This lends a documentary style to the popular HBO dramedy.
“You’re a fly on the wall watching the Roy family scheme with and against each other. But there are Shakespearean moments as well, so the look of the show is rooted in both realism and classicism.
“Cinematographer Andrij Parekh and I established this look in the pilot, and series cinematographers Patrick Capone and Christopher Norr have skillfully maintained this throughout some of the most challenging situations of any episodic show on television.
“Staying true to the analog tone and texture of film is vital to the look of the series, so I approach the grade as if I’m in a telecine environment,” the colorist added. “I work very hard at finding the right primary grade with just offset and lift-gamma-gain.
“I use secondaries sparingly as too much artifice would distract from the realism. The beauty is already there in the negative, you just have to dial it in and let the story and performances take center stage.”
It WAS a Long and Winding Road: Producing Peter Jackson’s Epic Documentary “The Beatles: Get Back”
Peter Jackson’s long-awaited documentary, The Beatles: Get Back, is set to arrive on Disney+ on November 25, 26 and 27, Greg Evans reports in Deadline. The three-part docuseries takes audiences back in time to the band’s intimate recording sessions during a pivotal moment in their history.
Initially set for theatrical release in late August, The Beatles: Get Back was originally conceived as a feature-length documentary, according to IndieWire’s Zack Sharf. “Disney+ has now announced the documentary is moving to Thanksgiving and expanding into a three-part series,” he writes.
“I think people will be surprised by the series for two reasons,” Jackson told Sharf. “One, it’ll be far more intimate than they imagined it to be, because everyone is used to seeing music documentaries being a bit kind of MTV-ish, sort of together in a poppy kind of way and it’s just the music, music, music, you know? The music isn’t at the forefront of this film: weirdly, it’s what goes on behind the music at the forefront.”
“Jackson spent three years restoring and editing some 60 hours of footage shot in January 1969 by [Let It Be director] Michael Lindsay-Hogg that hasn’t been seen before, and more than 150 hours of previously unheard audio,” Kim Lyons notes in The Verge. “It captures John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr preparing for their first live show in more than two years, writing and rehearsing 14 new songs.”
The only person in 50 years to have been given access to these private film archives, Jackson found the unseen and unheard material to be revelatory. “In many respects, Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s remarkable footage captured multiple storylines,” the filmmaker said in a statement:
“The story of friends and of individuals. It is the story of human frailties and of a divine partnership. It is a detailed account of the creative process, with the crafting of iconic songs under pressure, set amid the social climate of early 1969. But it’s not nostalgia — it’s raw, honest, and human. Over six hours, you’ll get to know The Beatles with an intimacy that you never thought possible.”
The world had its first taste of Get Back late last year, in a nearly six-minute video montage featuring highlights from the archival materials. Jackson himself introduced the video, noting that he was roughly halfway through the edit on what at the time was meant to be a feature-length project:
“So, what you’re going to see is, it’s not a trailer, those will be coming out next year. It’s not a sequence from the film. It’s like a montage of moments, that we’ve pulled from throughout the 56 hours of footage, that we have. It just gives you a sense of the spirit of the film that we’re making, so let’s have a look at that. Hopefully, it’ll put a smile on your face, in these rather bleak times, that we’re in the moment.”
Variety senior music editor Jem Aswad calls Get Back “a counter-narrative to the glum Let It Be, an alternate history that makes you question what you thought about the original.”
With sound and visuals “approximately three times as bright” as the original 1970 film, “the audio is cleaner, and it’s much lighter and more pastel-colored than the murky browns and blacks of Let It Be. But most remarkably, the mood is three times brighter as well,” he remarks.
The Beatles are in the same 1969 setting as Let It Be, Aswad notes, but now they’re “clowning around, dancing, doing impersonations, embracing, laughing… and almost never not smiling.” He also comments on the “lively supporting cast,” including longtime producer George Martin, “and even a moment where we see the purported wife-rivals Yoko Ono and Linda McCartney laughing together. We see Paul cuddling with his step-daughter Heather, John and Ringo walking with their arms around each other — a family.”
Aswad also asks how all of this incredible footage didn’t make it into the original film. “Maybe the original Let It Be was a narrative of its own,” he muses, “and Get Back is the counter-narrative. And as in life, they’re both true.”
“Jackson’s film isn’t just a delicious peek at lost footage (though it is that),” Joe Hagan writes at Vanity Fair. “It’s an amendment to the received history.”
Hagan was given an exclusive look at 43 minutes of footage from the forthcoming documentary series, as well as a lengthy interview with Jackson about the project.
“Though Get Back is made for modern eyes decades after the events themselves, it’s faithful to the intent of the original, which was to chronicle the band’s return to live performance after they ceased playing concerts in 1966,” Hagan comments.
Let It Be had been intended as a TV series with taped performances of new Beatles songs performed before a small audience. But after Harrison walked out of Twickenham Studios following arguments with McCartney, that “little episode,” as Lindsay-Hogg calls it, was blown up to represent acrimony between Harrison and McCartney and underlying severe tension. “And in fact, it’s just a small little cloud which passes over their working relationship in five minutes,” Lindsay-Hogg recalled. “That’s all it was.”
However, the “little episode” caused a major pivot in the production, Hagan notes, and the television project was reshaped into a feature film in order to fulfil a three-picture deal Beatles manager Brian Epstein had made with United Artists before his death, in 1967. Let It Be was released in May of 1970, just one month after the Beatles had split up, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Jackson chose not to exclude the “little episode” that led to Let It Be — a brief but tense scene where McCartney soothes a wounded Harrison after criticizing his guitar parts — but he decided that he would also show its aftermath, making Get Back more revealing, not less.
For his own project, Jackson decided that when Harrison and McCartney begin fighting—a brief but tense scene in which McCartney placates a wounded Harrison after criticizing his guitar parts—he would show not only that but the aftermath as well. Consequently, Jackson says, Get Back will be more revealing than the original, not less. “It’s a lot tougher movie than Let It Be,” Jackson told Hagan. “I mean, Let It Be couldn’t show George leaving the group, which he did on the seventh day, and then he obviously came back again. Let It Be never showed that.”
“Jackson says he didn’t need to manipulate Lindsay-Hogg’s original footage — or include talking heads to contextualize things — to create a dramatic plot,” Hagan recounts. “The sessions formed their own story, and Get Back, he decided, could simply be a ‘documentary about the documentary.’”
For Jackson, the “little episode” was a perfect opportunity in terms of story structure. “If this was a fictional movie about a fictional band, having one of the band members walk out at the end of the first act—it’d be the ideal thing that you’d actually write into a script,” he says. “So, weirdly enough, these guys are playing out their real life. They were not playing it out [as] a movie or a script — that was the truth of their life. And yet, somehow, in terms of these 21 days, it kind of weirdly fits it. And then the triumphant third act where, against all odds, they’re up on the roof, playing — fantastic.”
Jackson met with Lindsay-Hogg in Los Angeles in 2020 to show him the restored footage. “He showed me a comparison of my Let It Be’s footage and his stuff,” said Lindsay-Hogg, including how McCartney’s hair appeared as a single block of color in the original and “now you can see every single strand of hair.”
In what Hagan calls “a decisive and crucial creative act,” Jackson avoided repeating footage from the original Let It Be, employing alternative camera angles even for familiar scenes:
“One of our mantras is that Let It Be is one movie, and our movie is a different movie, and we’re trying not to repeat any footage, with one or two tiny exceptions where we can’t do anything else. But we’re trying to not step on Let It Be’s toes so that it is still a film that has a reason to exist, and our movie will be a supplement to it.”
Jackson discussed Let It Be’s reputation as a “joyless document” of the collapse of The Beatles in an interview with Ben Sisario, music writer at The New York Times, explaining how Get Back tries to fill in some of the gaps left by the first film.
“Everyone sort of thinks it’s a ‘whitewash’ because the Beatles have authorized the film. But actually it’s almost the exact opposite. It shows everything that Michael Lindsay-Hogg could not show in 1970. It’s a very unflinching look at what goes on,” he said.
“Our movie doesn’t show the breaking up of the Beatles, but it shows the one singular moment in history that you could possibly say was the beginning of the end,” he added.
“There’s no goodies in it, there’s no baddies. There’s no villains, there’s no heroes. It’s just a human story.”
But not everyone is necessarily excited about the upcoming series. Variety chief film critic Owen Gleiberman — a self-described Beatles fanatic — questioned the need for a six-hour look back at the Beatles. “So here’s a question,” he writes. “Since we just learned that we’re about to get more of the Beatles, why, in my heart and gut, does it feel like less?”
Although there have been several attempts to re-release it, Let It Be hasn’t been available to watch in recent years, “but it has a place in film history,” Gleiberman explains:
“It’s a scraggly elegy, capturing a certain wistful moment of reckoning that’s part of the Beatles’ story. From the start, though, the premise of Peter Jackson’s Get Back has been that the 50 hours of footage originally shot in 1969 by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg actually tells a different story: a more complex and upbeat one. As any Beatles fan knows, the aura that surrounds Let It Be is a kind of mythology. The film showed the Beatles near the end, and it was released after the group had broken up (so it felt like we were seeing them ‘together for the last time’), but, in fact, after the Get Back sessions went south, the Beatles went back into the studio to record ‘Abbey Road,’ an album as pristinely gorgeous in its joy as Let It Be was knowingly ramshackle in its melancholy.”
Gleiberman hopes that Jackson will be provide a more intimate, and revealing, portrait of the Beatles during that time, “one that adds to the group’s mystique,” he says:
“And that’s why The Beatles: Get Back is — or was — a movie I dreamed of seeing in theaters. Today, most music documentaries are streaming only, but the Beatles remain larger-than-life. They turned the entire world into a community, and still have the power to turn an audience into a congregation. If the Beatles aren’t worthy of the big screen, I don’t know who is.”
Independent’s Ed Cumming notes that while Jackson didn’t want to use any of the same footage from Let It Be, there was still plenty of material to plumb. His approach was to let the archival footage speak for itself. Where other filmmakers might have decided to “cut the footage more dramatically or impose a stronger sense of [their] own narrative on things… Jackson is content to keep a gentle hand on the tiller.”
In Get Back, conversations run on, and the viewer is pulled into these intimate moments between the band. “A common complaint of cultural documentaries is that you don’t get to see the magic happen,” says Cummings. “Well, here it is, two-and-a-half geniuses and Ringo Starr sitting in a room, snapping at each other and still coming up with songs that mean something to everyone you know.”
Jackson acknowledged the enormous stakes of taking on a landmark project like Get Back in an interview with Ed Symkus for the Boston Globe. “There was pressure on me the whole time,” he said.
“One of the things that I, as a fan, know very well about the Beatles is that they never wanted to release a project that was substandard. I was very much aware that it had to be as good as it could possibly be,” he continued. “This wasn’t a guy making just another documentary out of stock footage from Reuters or Pathé, without the Beatles’ approval. This is an official Beatles project that I’m shepherding. It wasn’t anything they told me. They didn’t put this pressure on me. I just knew, as a Beatles fan, that, boy, the Beatles never shortchanged anybody. They always delivered the goods, they always delivered something great. And that’s what I had to do.”
Want more? Check out this clip from The Beatles: Get Back, featuring restored, never-before-seen footage of the band practicing “I’ve Got a Feeling.” The clip provides a tiny glimpse into the group’s creative process, as well as the relationship between the fab four:
In an interview with 60 Minutes, Jackson describes how he crafted the narrative arc of his new Beatles documentary, Get Back, and explains the technical process for restoring footage:
In the video below, Jackson tells Newshub entertainment editor Kate Rodger how the production team was able to isolate voices in the restored footage.
“When the footage was being filmed, the musicians weren’t keen on having everything they said recorded, so much so that at times they’d play an instrument at the same time to try and hide what they were saying,” Jackson said.
“With this technology we’ve got, we can strip away the guitar and reveal these hidden conversations that they didn’t want anyone to hear.”
Ahead of the release of The Beatles: Get Back on Disney+, John Harris, editor of the new book of the same name, take viewers on a delightful journey to three key locations in London from the making of the Let It Be album:
We don’t know Jeff Bezos, but we know he’s a very competitive man. Why else would he launch his space tourist company Blue Origin against Virgin Galactic? Or his low-orbit satellite internet service Project Kuiper against Elon Musk’s Starlink?
But now he’s taking his competitive streak to global television screens with the new fantasy TV series, The Wheel of Time. As Brad Stone reports in his recent book, Amazon Unbound, Bezos had a clear idea of what he wanted. In fact, Bezos told his executive team, “he wanted his Game of Thrones.”
But, as Alison Herman writes in The Ringer, “The goal was, on one level, almost redundant; isn’t ‘the next Game of Thrones’ just another term for ‘the next TV megahit,’ and isn’t the objective of every TV show for as many people to watch it as possible?”
But the “sorta-pivot” also makes a certain sense, Herman argues. “It wouldn’t be consistent for the Everything Store to specialize in lower-budget series with the look and feel of an independent film — though over the years, Amazon has acquired plenty of those, too. (Annette, the recently released French rock opera with a singing puppet baby, was one of theirs.) As a company, Amazon is nothing if not vast in scale. Perhaps their productions should be, too.”
GQ Magazine’s Zach Brown sees this particular space race for content as one to reproduce the massive, decade-long success HBO had with Game of Thrones. “In this competition for content and eyeballs, Amazon and Apple have an advantage over their competitors in that they are the two richest brands in the world — so rich that they can afford to follow the whims of their founders, wherever those whims may go,” he notes.
“The company, under the direction of Jeff Bezos, spent $3.2 billion on Prime Video in 2016; by 2019, that number had more than doubled, to $7 billion.
“Money, by the standards of any other studio in the history of television, was no issue. Amazon just had to find the right project. In the end it settled on two, buying a pitch from a relatively untested television writer, in Rafe Judkins, who had grown up reading The Wheel of Time and had an idea about how it might work as a series.
“Amazon also spent a reported $250 million on the rights to The Lord of the Rings and, in time, put both into production,” Brown writes.
“We are all in a fortunate position at the company,” Vernon Sanders, the co-head of television at Amazon Studios, said. “We should be swinging for the fences. So we’re swinging for the fences.”
As for the TV series, which arrived on Amazon Prime Video on November 19 and was greenlit for a second season ahead of the series premiere, the ingredients are all there for a Game of Thrones-like TV feast. The Wheel of Time is one of the most popular and enduring fantasy series of all time, with more than 90 million books sold.
Set in a sprawling, epic world where magic exists and only certain women are allowed to access it, the story follows Moiraine (Rosamund Pike), a member of the incredibly powerful all-female organization called the Aes Sedai, as she arrives in the small town of Two Rivers. There, she embarks on a dangerous, world-spanning journey with five young men and women, one of whom is prophesied to be the Dragon Reborn who will either save or destroy humanity.
Judkins discussed the comparisons between the two fantasy series in an interview with Polygon’s Preeti Chhibber.
“Wheel of Time in the literary world really sits as kind of the pillar between Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones,” the showrunner said.
“But [the show is] coming out after both of them. So, we have to be mindful of that I think, too,” he acknowledged. “There are things that Wheel of Time created that Game of Thrones did their riff on, and it’ll feel like we’re being repetitive when it was actually in Wheel of Time first… I try to be really true to what the Wheel of Time books are, and what makes them great.”
Little Black Book’s Laura Swinton takes a look at the marketing campaign for the series, which she says interweaves “inventive activations, collaborative fandom strategies and a dash of the One Power.
“Given the reported $10 million per episode production budget, Amazon wants to make sure that this series pays back — that it is seen and drives Amazon Prime subscriptions,” she writes. And to do just that, “The first step has been to engage the existing fandom — in fact the fandom has been acknowledged even in the making of the show.”
NBC’s Ani Bundel believes the story is a step in the right direction for the fantasy genre. Calling it the “ultimate unfilmable fantasy saga,” this 14-book series “usher[ed] in an era of doorstopper-sized, continent-spanning fantasy epics revolving around ‘chosen one’ narratives.”
“The series was a marvel of meticulously detailed world-building. However, it cared little for momentum,” Bundel said. “Rather than move the story forward, Jordan preferred to devote chapters upon chapters to building out subcultures and customs while reveling in taking the mythos of the Eastern and Western traditions and melding them into a single hero’s tale.”
At TechRadar, Tom Power says this conversion from book to screen for this series will become your new “fantasy show obsession.” Even though the book series is dense, “Amazon’s adaptation has streamlined the novels’ labyrinthine story and worldbuilding as much as possible,” he says.
“From the opening minute of the series’ premiere, we’re treated to a summary of events, courtesy of Pike’s Moirane, that precede The Wheel of Time’s overarching plot. It’s only brief, but it instantly sets the scene for what’s currently at stake in the Randlands, and means that audiences don’t have to sit through a lengthy preamble about its past.”
For the production, The Wheel of Time needed space, and lots of it. Unfortunately, production hubs across the world were full, but eventually they landed in Prague, where Jordan Studios is built, just outside the city and named after the author Robert Jordan.
Fansided’s Dan Selcke describes the colossal undertaking that is and was Jordan Studios. “We’re talking a private stunt gym, a costume department, writers’ offices, accounting operations, a visual effects studio, multiple enormous sound stages all in this building that is 350,000 square-feet.”
Costume designer Isis Mussenden created 350 costumes for the first two episodes alone. “I’ve personally been to Madrid, London, and New Delhi to buy textiles,” she said, “because we have so little here and we need thousands and thousands of meters of fabric to create all of this.”
Then, Selcke notes, there are creatures, including “fearsome beast soldiers” called Trollocs. “You’re sort of saying, ‘Okay, you can’t have any influences or imagery tying into orcs and Lord of the Rings,’ ” said creature designer Nick Dudman. Trollocs are supposed to be tall, “but I didn’t want to put them on stilts because of the fact that we’re running through woodland, and running downhill on stilts is just really not a good idea.”
But how do you find out what the secret sauce was that made Game of Thrones such a colossus in the TV ratings war? You could ask the show’s showrunners, and that’s exactly what Judkins did. “Judkins sought out advice from Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss. ‘Just do what you’re going to do,’ they told him. ‘You know what this is. You have to believe in it. These kinds of things have to have an extraordinary clarity of vision to work.’ “
But pre-launch, the talk is still all about the money. Viewers have become accustomed to a kind of scale, or realism, that creeps toward the real. “It’s not like we can go say, ‘Oh, you know, Game of Thrones, season one, they only spent this,’ ” commented Mike Weber, an executive producer of The Wheel of Time. “The audience expectation is coming off of the last season of Game of Thrones, not the first season.”
For the first season of Game of Thrones, HBO spent about $6 million an episode, a number that steadily climbed from there. Amazon and The Wheel of Time? They’re starting at upward of a reported $10 million per episode — for eight total, the first of which will begin streaming in November — just to get out of the gate.
In an interview for The Hollywood Reporter, Pete Keeley asked Judkins about one set piece that’s different between the novel and the series — the changing perspectives within the Trollocs’ attack on Emond’s Field. “Outside of the first book, one of the hallmarks of the series was that you track all of these characters’ POVs. So that was one thing we really felt like we needed to put in the pilot, was much more of an ensemble feeling,” he said.
“So in the books, you only know what happened to one character on Winter Night, but in the show we are seeing what might have happened to each of these characters during that battle, which, it’s not creating something that wasn’t there. It happened. They had these experiences. We just didn’t get to see what they were [in the book] because we were focused on [Rand].”
Want more? Watch the Wheel of Time cast discuss the upcoming series during a panel discussion at New York Comic Com 2021:
Amazon Prime Video also released a 360-degree experience for the official trailer to The Wheel of Time, which allows viewers to click and move the trailer in order to watch and hear at all angles. Check it out in the video player below, and possibly find some hidden gems within the various energy waves:
“Eternals” and Director Chloé Zhao’s Independent Spirit
It’s easy to repeat a winning formula in movies, albeit generally with diminishing box office returns. Less simple is to replicate a formula that includes within it the analog creativity of an authentic auteur. It’s to the credit of Disney, and to Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige in particular, that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has continued to expand the rulebook of the blockbuster while retaining some of the spirit of indie filmmaking.
Feige has regularly sought to use emerging indie filmmakers to helm new entrants in the MCU. They include Ryan Coogler, fresh from Fruitvale Station, to make Black Panther; Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, whose indie fare included Mississippi Grind before making Captain Marvel; and the Russo Brothers, whose comedy starring Owen Wilson, You, Me and Dupree, was the unlikely jumping off point for Captain America: The Winter Soldier; and Avengers: Endgame. (The DC Extended Universe followed suit, notably hiring Patty Jenkins to make Wonder Woman.)
The Marvel boss explained to Variety that the MCU uses so many indie filmmakers because they offer unique points of view that can take you to places you’ve never gone before:
“The real answer is, frankly, continuing what we’ve learned with all of the different types of filmmakers that we have used. When you get people with unique points of views, regardless of the size of film they’ve done in the past, and empower them and surround them with the great artists and technicians that can bring spectacle, that can bring the visuals that a Marvel movie requires, they can take you to places you’ve never gone before.”
The latest to accept the call is Chloé Zhao, who was tapped to direct Eternals right before she made her Oscar-winning docudrama, Nomadland. That film, set like her previous features in the American Midwest largely using a cast of non-professional actors, couldn’t be more different to the huge production schedules, large star cast and executive micro-management of a tentpole like Eternals. Which is part of the attraction to both director and studio.
“An auteur with an eye for natural settings and a sensitivity for intimate, personal stories, she pushed to make sure her Eternals wasn’t just another computer-generated superhero movie full of coiffed crusaders with ‘Man’ in their monikers,” says Wired.
According to Nate Moore, a co-producer on the film, Zhao has deconstructed who gets to be a Marvel hero — and reinvented the MCU in the process. It’s that regeneration which Feige and Disney know they need if audiences are to keep coming back for more.
Once Zhao came on board, she reworked the script and made a plan to shoot it in her style: “minimal green screen, lots of location shoots, natural light, wide-angle lenses that can capture both close-up intimacy and vast landscapes within the same frame.
“I’m not going to try to do something different for the sake of doing something different — that’s not interesting to me,” Zhao tells Wired. “There’s no reason for them to get someone like me just to shoot a movie on a soundstage.”
Some Marvel films may need big CGI worlds, but because her movie is about heroes who have been on Earth for 7,000 years, she wanted her cast to be able to interact with real physical spaces.
And while Eternals’ central characters must save Earth from the Deviants, according to Moore the film also challenges assumptions about what comic book characters should look like.
So, Eternals is the first Marvel movie with a deaf star (Lauren Ridloff as Makkari) and also features Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos, one of the MCU’s first openly gay superheroes (leading to the film facing censorship in places like Saudi Arabia). Several characters are a different race or gender than they were in Jack Kirby’s original 1970s comics.
For Zhao, that’s the point. Talk of inclusion gets tossed around a lot in Hollywood, but it often devolves into box-checking; she wants to honor her characters’ diversity by making their personal identities part of the plot.
“There are many different ways a human being can be heroic,” Zhao says. “I want to explore as many as possible, so that more audiences can see themselves in these heroic moments and feel they can relate.”
Feige likens her to an anthropologist, someone who studies her subjects and then makes films showcasing their abilities. She did it with the real nomads featured in Nomadland and the Lakota rodeo cowboy at the heart of The Rider.
Wired says, “For Eternals, she cross-pollinated the tale of human evolution in Harari’s Sapiens with Marvel’s own mythology to explore how extra-terrestrials would have integrated with humanity over the course of millennia.”
Feige says he told her “that it was her vision for this movie that made me think that, post-Endgame, the MCU could survive.”
She had to do so without her regular cinematographer, Joshua James Richards, and work with Ben Davis, BSC, an extremely experienced DP whose work includes Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain Marvel.
“It was a totally unique experience,” Davis told me. “It was mostly shot single camera ARRI LF on a Ronin rig usually at magic hour. When you’re dealing with a huge cast, in costume, that becomes challenging.
“All of her films are shot in this very realistic drama-doc style and this was no different in many respects. Her shooting style is very spontaneous. There were no on camera rehearsals, very little blocking out. The actors knew that they were required to respond to the scene in front of them. Chloe would give a direction — the objective of the scene — and it was up to all of us in front and behind the camera to respond to that. It took a while for us all to adjust but it was very rewarding.
“Our characters may be gods but she didn’t want any shot to feel artificial and contrived. For her, as soon as you become over dramatic with the look it feels phony. We had to plant these characters within a truth and honesty so you believe where they are and what they are doing.”
“Cowboy Bebop,” Where It’s Retro, Futuristic, Film Noir, Spaghetti Western, Anime, and Live Action… All at Once
By Jennifer Wolfe & Abby Spessard
Okay — 3, 2, 1, Let’s Jam.
That’s the unmistakable opening to “Tank,” the theme song for Cowboy Bebop, a jazz-backed medley of action and intrigue, and one of the world’s most beloved anime series. Created and animated by Japanese studio Sunrise, the sci-fi neo-noir anime ran for just one season, but went on to capture the hearts of multiple generations of fans from all around the world.
A live-action adaptation, arriving on Netflix on November 19, promises to hew closely to the original action-packed space Western. The new series stars John Cho as Spike Spiegel, Mustafa Shakir as Jet Black, and Daniella Pineda as Faye Valentine, three bounty hunters, aka “cowboys,” who form a scrappy, snarky crew ready to hunt down the solar system’s most dangerous criminals — for the right price. Original anime series director Shinichirō Watanabe was brought on board to serve as creative consultant, and Yoko Kanno retuned as the series composer, collaborating with EDM legend Steve Aoki on a retooled version of the theme song.
An early review from Maureen Ryan at Vanity Fair notes how the series is structured so the episodes work together as a cohesive narrative yet still stand on their own. Each episode kicks off with an episode of Big Shot, the show-within-a-show that keeps bounty hunters informed about the latest happenings in the solar system. With each episode focused on the bounty du jour, Cowboy Bebop is a “streaming drama with an overarching plot that also offers episodes that are, especially in the early going, enjoyably self-contained.” And with some world-building and “richly retro production design,” Ryan believes that “this is a show that’s willing to be weird and goofy while displaying a lot of heart.”
But don’t worry if you’ve never seen any of the original anime series or know what is to come in the series. “This light-on-its-feet drama draws on the original, visually and thematically, without feeling overly beholden to it,” said Ryan. “I hope I can say this without the angriest parts of Reddit falling on my head: This version of Cowboy Bebop, in many ways, improves on the original.”
The Cowboy Bebop adaptation is just one recent example of a classic IP receiving the live-action treatment, but it may be the most heavily scrutinized. Fans scoured the first looks, opening credits and trailers for glimpses of the characters and production design, firing up fierce debates across social media sites. In a move that only stirred the pot, Netflix released side-by-side sequences from both series to demonstrate the production team’s devotion to the source material.
“Because it’s beloved, we did not want to screw it up,” executive producer Becky Clements told The Hollywood Reporter during a star-studded premiere event at Hollywood’s Goya Studios. “We were terrified because the fan base was so loyal. We always had an eye toward making sure we kept the integrity of the original in the live-action.”
CG Magazine’s Philip Watson notes that the reaction to the show’s casting has been largely favorable. “The conflict between the personalities of the crew adds just the right amount of humor to the plot,’ he writes.
“Spike Spiegel is still faithful to his Bruce Lee ideologies, as seen by the brief clip of the wooden dummy actor Cho is fighting in a scene. Jet Black remains as serious looking as ever, and Ein seems to be played by an actual corgi. The setting looks stunningly realistic, and the characters’ costumes are almost chameleons of their anime counterparts, except Faye’s design is revamped in the live-action version.”
But it would be a mistake to call the new Netflix series a remake, cautions IndieWire’s Tyler Hersko. “Series showrunner André Nemec has stated that he intends for the Netflix show to be an ‘expansion to the canon,’ rather than a shot-for-shot remake of the original series.”
A “Lost Session” promo for the live-action series features split-screen panels, evoking a comic book sensibility. The promo was produced by Radical Media, led by director Greg Jardin, who spoke with Little Black Book’s Ben Conway about the three-day shoot.
“For the most part, the actors were interacting with practical sliding bars that the art department had built, so that they would have something tactile to actually grab on to and push all around. And then the shots where the camera would laterally track with one character walking into another environment was done using a motion control rig, and a lot of takes,” he said.
“Probably the thing we discussed the most was the best way to pull the split-screen gags off, in particular, the bits where one actor would cross from one frame into another. It required the art department to build a variety of rigs, but it also required the actors to repeat the same actions as close as they could, all at the same distance from the camera, all timed the same, etc, etc. I sort of warned all of the actors in advance that we were going to shoot a lot of takes of all of those moments to make sure that we were covered in post. But seeing it all come together in the edit was so exciting and rewarding that all of the team efforts really paid off.”
Showrunner André Nemec, who appeared with Cho during a panel discussion moderated by Wired’s Cecilia D’Anastasio for the RE:WIRED virtual conference, said he thinks he’s up for the task.
“I think the real challenge from the beginning was being able to capture the tone of the anime. The manner in which we achieved that was by digging deep into the character work,” Nemec told D’Anastasio.
By finding “the core essence of who these people are,” the filmmakers were able to use witty banter and action-packed fight scenes to elicit dramatic moments. “There was a true depth and a true pain to all of these characters, and a pain that we can identify with the souls of the characters,” Nemec said.
“A hero’s story is only countered by an amazing bad guy,” Nemec commented about Spike’s arch-nemesis, Vicious (played by Alex Hassell). “I happen to love bad guys in film and TV. To me, it was very, very important for us to really get under the skin of who Vicious was, why Vicious was, what is Vicious chasing.”
Nemec recounted how this line of questioning functioned inside the writer’s room. “Now let’s tell the story from Vicious’s perspective. Who is Spike Spiegel to him? To Vicious, Spike Spiegel is the bad guy. Why is that? Where does that come from? And also Julia, I thought it was very important to tell a story about that character that is mostly an idea in thee and not so much of character. In that telling Julia, I wanted to see that character find her own agency to resolve her own problem, rather than being a product of being seen and being rescued, and ultimately getting to a place where she could own her own destiny. That to me was very, very important.”
Retro tech, Playboy magazine, and even ham sandwiches populate the world of Cowboy Bebop, and that worldbuilding is as essential to the narrative as the multifaceted characters who inhabit it. “What was immediately apparent from the anime is that it’s not a dystopian picture of the future, despite a cataclysmic planet-ending event that sends us to colonize space,” Nemec explains. “In fact, it’s multicultural, and in that multiculturalism we rebuild our society in the nostalgia of the world we came from.”
These retro touches are what make the futuristic yet grounded world of Cowboy Bebop so comforting, Nemec added. “I do believe that in our future, if we found ourselves in this place, we would bring ham sandwiches with us to outer space.
“We all watched Cowboy Bebop 20 years ago. The world, even 20 years ago, was different then it is today. I think it’s nice for us to sort of be growing up and see some of those things that we remember from when the show was actually on the air.”
Martial arts are a major component of Cowboy Bebop, as any fan knows.
There’s “something intellectual about the discipline” of martial arts, Nemec said. “The goal of Cowboy Bebop was always to tell character stories through the action sequences. You’ll notice that each one of the characters plays on a very different style of how they fight, how they deal with conflict, and I think that’s always important because there is the individual component to how all of us take on conflict.
“There’s also so much more to Spike Spiegel than the martial arts,” Nemec continued. “I was saying the other day that as much as there may be an essence of Bruce Lee or an inspiration of Bruce Lee in the rendering of Spike Spiegel in the anime, there is also an incredible rendering of Humphrey Bogart in Spike Spiegel in the anime. It’s a mashup and that’s what Cowboy Bebop always is. It’s a mashup of many ideas. I think that’s why people are so drawn to it because they find something that they can hang onto, something that relates to them, because of that mashup.”
For inspiration, Nemec says, “I spent my entire time watching old noirs, The Big Sleep, and The Maltese Falcon, and Bonnie and Clyde, and Spaghetti Westerns, Dick Donner movies, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was a plethora of amazing, iconic, classic movies from different genres because that’s what inspires Cowboy Bebop.”
The most difficult martial arts sequence to film, Cho said, was Spike’s practice session with a wooden dummy in the first episode. “Partially because we couldn’t really hide a stunt man in that scene,” he recounted. “He’s practicing his punches and blocks on a martial arts dummy, and it’s in practice mode, so he’s getting a real workout. That was a tough sequence to memorize.”
The diverse casting of the Netflix series was driven by what Nemec says is the original anime’s “somewhat optimistic view of the universe,” which continues to offer a hopeful outlook despite all of the obvious ills it contains, such as mob bosses, corrupt corporations, and other master criminals.
“The essence of living in the spirit of Cowboy Bebop, to me, is that the cast itself should be multicultural, the genders fluid, and none of these things are active conversations,” Nemec said. “We’ve moved beyond those conversations in the future that I wanted to imagine, that our Cowboy Bebop was taking place in. It was almost this non-conversation that, just again, happened very fluidly.”
Nemec and his team collaborated closely with the original show’s creators at Sunrise. The studio provided them with a plethora of reference materials, including original drawings of characters, props, locations and spaceships.
“The entire team at Sunrise was phenomenal, and they gave us so much information,” Nemec enthused. “I have stacks and stacks of books and other stuff with original character drawings, development notes, props, locations, spaceships, all of this amazing information to draw from.”
But out of all the conversations he had with the studio, the “best words ever” were “Now go make your show,” Nemec recalled. “To be invited into somebody’s very rich sandbox and to be told, ‘Make the castle that you want to make,’ was the most incredible, inspiring thing. That’s what I carried with me through the journey: ‘Be beholden to all and none of it, but as you see fit.’ “
Nemec calls the original Cowboy Bebop “beautiful poetry,” Syfy’s Tara Bennet notes, but that doesn’t mean the show will necessarily translate to a live-action series because the characters “will come across a little archetypal.” In other words, don’t mess with them.
“Spike Spiegel is a cowboy with a broken heart, that really is who he is at his core. Jet Black is the eternal optimist, a grumpy guy with a heart of jelly beans. Faye Valentine, at her core is a survivor. Someone who is not going to let the hardships of the world around her, while they try to keep kicking her down, she continues to press forward,” Nemec told Bennet. “We looked at all of these things. And once we had those, we then began to craft stories for these characters.”
In an interview with Matt Patches for Polygon, Nemec discussed how series composer Yoko Kanno completely reimagined the soundtrack. “Yoko’s involvement in this show to me was paramount to almost everything else,” the showrunner said.
“Anybody who loves the music from Cowboy Bebop is going to love beyond what Yoko has done for us on this show. It is really sensational,” Nemec enthused. “I will hear music pieces come in, we will talk about character and theme, and then when I get those pieces there have been more times than I can remember that I hear something and I’m like… a smile comes to my face.”
In the video featurette below, composer Kanno discusses her musical choices for the live-action adaptation.
Detailing the recording sessions, Kanno says, “What made things very easy this time around was that the same musicians named Seatbelts from 20 years ago were willing to help me. I feel as if I’ve known them all my life. They could take a single melody line and elaborate it into something really cool.”
If you’re just catching up to the series now, be sure to check out AV Club‘s eight essential episodes to watch from the original Cowboy Bebop, all of which are referenced in the opening credits of the live-action Netflix series. Or head over to Collider, which lists seven essential episodes you’ll want to watch before seeing the live-action adaptation.
Want more? Cowboy Bebop fan Ash Parrish and first-time watcher Andrew Webster binged the new series on Netflix, sharing their reactions to the live-action adaptation. Head over to The Verge to read their opinions on the cast, music and worldbuilding.
The stars of the show — John Cho, Daniella Pineda and Mustafa Shakir — also interviewed each other during Netflix’s virtual TUDUM event, Comic Book reports, giving fans a closer look at what to expect from the new live-action series.
If you’d like to watch the interview, the Netflix Geeked account shared the exchange on Twitter:
“Cool, Lost, Hungry” are all pretty accurate when it comes to describing Spike. we asked the cast of Cowboy Bebop to interview each other about the upcoming series. #Tudumpic.twitter.com/fexhRajt01
Starring Anna Kendrick, Daniel Dae Kim, Shamier Anderson and Toni Collette, Netflix’s Stowaway follows a space mission that is headed to Mars when an unintended stowaway accidentally causes severe damage to the spaceship’s life support systems. Facing dwindling resources and a potentially fatal outcome, the crew is forced to make an impossible decision.
The film’s co-writer and editor, Ryan Morrison, relied on Adobe Premiere Pro, After Effects, and Photoshop while editing remotely. We asked Ryan about his favorite scenes to write and cut together, how Productions in Premiere Pro allowed his team to work more efficiently, and his advice for aspiring filmmakers. Ryan has been editing on Premiere Pro since his days as a YouTube creator and we were excited to hear about his experience as he transitioned into feature filmmaking, first with Arctic and now with Stowaway.”
How and where did you first learn to edit?
I first learned to edit pretty late in the game. I was taking some basic production courses in college. It was great to learn the basics there, but I did most of my learning from trial and error. Shooting and editing my own projects for fun.
How do you begin a project/set up your workspace?
I’m often editing on set, so my setup and workspace are usually dictated by the location. For Arctic, I brought the bare essentials into the snow with me and assembled much of the film from a cold trailer in the middle of the Icelandic wilderness. For Stowaway, I had the great fortune of setting up my suite in an office only a few steps from the stage. At some points my desk was literally in the soundstage next to the set pieces.
Tell us about a favorite scene or moment from this project and why it stands out to you.
My favorite scene is the launch at the very beginning. It was the first thing [director and co-writer] Joe [Penna] and I wrote and didn’t change very much from that first draft all the way through the final edit. We both had such a clear picture of what that should look, sound and feel like right from the beginning. It was so much fun seeing every layer being added. Words on the page, to previsualization, to production, the cut, sound design, music, VFX, then color. The final product was better than we imagined.
What were some specific post-production challenges you faced that were unique to your project? How did you go about solving them?
The pandemic hit while we were in the middle of post. Joe and I were in LA and were not allowed to travel to Europe at the time.
We ended up coming up with a workflow where Joe and I were in LA and could remotely monitor the colorist and DP who were in Germany. We used calibrated iPad Pro’s to ensure uniform color representation. Then we managed to review some exports at a local color house.
What Adobe tools did you use on this project and why did you originally choose them? Why were they the best choice for this project?
I relied heavily on Premiere Pro, After Effects and Photoshop. Productions in Premiere Pro offered us a platform for a very efficient workflow involving multiple users. After Effects integrates seamlessly with Premiere Pro and it was critical for me to be able to mockup effects in order to feel the truest rhythm of a scene. Photoshop was an essential tool for Joe and I to mockup and communicate complex visual concepts to our VFX team.
What do you like about Premiere Pro, and/or any of the other tools you used?
I love that all of the Adobe products I use are constantly evolving. Most NLEs serve the same basic functions, but Premiere Pro stands out to me because Adobe is always listening to the users. Every project has different needs and problems. In the years I’ve been editing professionally, I’ve had a laundry list of features that were at one time wishes and now are part of my daily workflow.
What’s your hidden gem/favorite workflow hack in Adobe Creative Cloud?
Productions in Premiere Pro was an absolute gamechanger. It allowed myself and my assistant to be able to work simultaneously without fear of overwriting or undoing anyone’s progress. It also eliminated wait times on opening large projects.
Who is your creative inspiration and why?
It might seem a bit odd, but my creativity is heavily influenced by a phrase my dad would always say to me when I was growing up: “Use the right tool for the job.” Looking at things that way makes me take a step back from whatever I’m working on (writing, shooting, editing) and remember to ask myself “what are you trying to achieve?” In my YouTube days, frenetic editing was the right tool for an off-the-wall MysteryGuitarMan video. For Arctic, the right tool was stark, slow shots to feel isolated. For Stowaway, it’s focusing on tension, both externally and internally. That phrase has really shaped me as a filmmaker.
What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to face in your career and how did you overcome it? What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers or content creators?
The toughest challenge I’ve ever faced in my career was when our YouTube channel was no longer sustainable for Joe and I to make a living. We were left with a choice to go get stable jobs in advertising or we could go all in and take one big swing at jumping into the big league with a feature film. The film was Arctic.
People often ask what advice I would give to aspiring content creators. I would tell them to start making things. If you’re already making things, then keep making them. Make them with friends. I think it’s better to look back and have an assortment of small projects that each carried a lesson with them, then to have a handful of great ideas that only live in your mind.
Share a photo of where you work. What’s your favorite thing about your workspace and why?
I love working from home because I don’t need to commute, I can start and finish as early or late as I’d like. And it’s so easy for my best friend (who happens to be the director) to come by and get some work done. That said, I’d love to someday have a space dedicated purely to my setup. The Arnold poster is a modified prop from the film with my face pasted onto it, courtesy of the art department. This photo is indie filmmaking in a nutshell. My living room doubling as our edit suite.
(Literally) Finding the Rhythm for “tick, tick… Boom!”
With Rent, Jonathan Larson taught a generation of theatergoers how to live “La Vie Boheme” — including the next generation’s musical-theater wunderkind: Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“I saw Rent on my 17th birthday and that was the show that unlocked for me that it was possible to actually write musicals,” he tells Entertainment Weekly. “That was the year I went from just liking musicals to having the audacity to think I could maybe write one.”
Now Miranda has made a film of Larson’s life, a musical biopic which is also a universal tale of artistic struggle. The framework for the film is tick, tick…Boom!, Larson’s autobiographical performance piece about the struggle to write something great before it’s too late. The screenplay by Steven Levenson uses this as a jumping off point to illustrate how songs and lyrics were forged by incidents and characters in Larson’s life.
“The film is about the universal artistic struggle, about what happens when you reach a certain point in your youth and decide whether to pursue your artistic dream or you’re going to sell out,” Andrew Weisblum, ACE, one of two editors on the film, tells NAB Amplify. “It’s about the life choices of Larson and of the impact of those life choices on those around him.”
Weisblum was first aboard the project when it began shooting in early 2020. Having graduated high school in New York in the late eighties when the film is set, the story had particular resonance for him.
“What I spoke to Lin about was the time and place of late eighties, early ‘90s and the theater community and how the city was being transformed at that time. I well aware of the circles that Jonathan Larson travelled in and the type of people who he interacted with. It’s a world I was very familiar with. I also understood that Larson was surrounded by the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic and by the desperation of that community to find a solution and get the rest of the world to pay attention to.”
Myron Kerstein, ACE joined the project in fall of 2020, by which time production had been delayed many months due to the pandemic and Weisblum had to leave due to other commitments.
“When Lin approached me to come on board he gave me a whole crash course of how Jonathan Larson had inspired him to get into theater and influenced him as an artist,” Kerstein explains to NAB Amplify.
Although Rent was Larson’s first show to hit Broadway, he was a prolific writer. Miranda turned to archives at the Library of Congress to craft the film’s score entirely from Larson’s music. Andrew Garfield, who stars as Larson, sings the songs along with a cast that includes Alexandra Shipp as Larson’s on-off girlfriend Susan and Robin de Jesus as his flat mate Michael.
“On the surface the film feels like a biopic. But it’s performance art, it’s Eric Bogosian meets Lin-Manuel,” Kerstein says. “It’s about how hard it is to craft something new. The structure of the film goes back and forth between Larson’s on-stage monologue to his back story writing dystopian rock musical Superbia.
“Lin and Andy had done a lot of that heavy lifting and had already assembled a director’s cut. It was my job to make sure there was more of a clarity and that the audience were not overwhelmed by not understanding that this is a musical within a musical about the construction of a musical.”
Telling Larson’s story on film rather than producing a stage play gives Miranda a chance to show what goes on inside a writer’s head. “A lot of the genesis of some of Jon’s most memorable songs are Jonathan Larson asking himself the question and then writing the song as the answer to the question he asked himself,” he told EW.
Kerstein had just finished cutting the film adaptation of Miranda’s In The Heights and brought this experience to bare on the song and dance numbers in tick, tick…Boom!
“The difference between In The Heights and this film was that here we had the performance stage as a great way to start a number. The song ‘Sunday’ for instance begins with just a few notes on the piano and it’s those little bridges that are helpful in transitioning from dialogue into musical.”
For Weisblum, it was finding a way to cut the film’s opening song, “30/90,” about a mid-life crisis, that provided a template for other numbers in the film. “We cross cut the sequence between Larson on stage, with him writing the song in his bedsit and with him talking about workshopping Superbia in the diner in a way that always had a context to what you were hearing. For me it was about finding a different way in to start each song and not over using the material.”
Larson spent his weekdays working at a diner and living hand-to-mouth in a rundown apartment while using all his spare time to write songs, workshop songs and fight for funding. That he died suddenly in 1996 at age 35 on the morning of Rent’s first preview performance Off-Broadway without experiencing the success his work deserved underlines the tale’s all too human tragedy of time running out.
“Jonathan doesn’t know he is going to die so the audience only have that as a context if they are aware of his story. Ultimately, you are experiencing what he is going through — his friendships, his ups and downs, his perseverance, his optimism and drive when many of us would have given up.”
“The Harder They Fall” Edit Mixes/Remixes Imagery, Dialogue, Music, and Sound Effects
You don’t have to look far to see the references for The Harder They Fall, a new take on the old Western genre. Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns with all their in-the-moment tension and imposing close-ups, plus the cascade of Tarantino violence from Django Unchained. But the music of Ennio Morricone isn’t referenced as the director, Jeymes Sammuel, was also the film’s composer.
This unusual combination was refreshing for editor Tom Eagles as it showed him where the rhythm emanated for the movie, as he told the Art of the Cut podcast. “He wrote a bunch of songs, and there are a couple of needle drops. The script was filled with all these reggae and dub needle drops initially, and there’s a great musicality to the dialogue as well.
“With Jeymes, he doesn’t really distinguish between music, dialogue, and sound effects. It’s all just one big opera. It was a constant form of interplay and a constant dance between music and picture to try and find the right kind of symphony of all of those elements.”
As soon as Tom was attached to the movie he latched on to those references, “Starting from the color Westerns and the big sky Westerns were influential, and definitely the new Westerns and the Italian Spaghetti Westerns. I guess I just absorbed that over a period of time leading up to cutting the film. Finding those Leone-style super close-ups made sense to me; I was familiar with the grammar.
“The pacing was something we took from those older Westerns, learning to be patient when building tension. Having to hold off and counter the expectations of a lot of contemporary cinemagoers who wanted things to be fast. It needs a little time to gestate.”
Ironically, the super close-ups were sometimes a cover for the lack of extras in scenes due to COVID restrictions, but they did the trick. “We couldn’t pack the bar out the way that Jeymes wanted to, initially. Although we did later go back and populate some wide shots and put some people into them in that first pass, they had to figure out a way to shoot it that didn’t reveal that the room was completely empty.
“All these close-ups on objects, like a beer glass going shattering, or cards going down on a table, they’re all wonderful punctuation points to the music. That was one of the few times that we were challenged but ultimately blessed by what COVID threw at us.”
This new Western genre still relied on a finale which Tom was assembling as the shots came in, “That battle sequence was crazy. It was coming in piece-by-piece throughout the shooting. We were getting shots by the main unit, shots by the second unit; things were divided up by cast availability, and there wasn’t a very strict dogma about what had to go where. There was a script, obviously, but Jeymes was very happy for me to move things around and try and find the right rhythm and make that emotional call.
“There’s a period of that fight that’s very fun, and the backbone of that is the Zazie Beetz and Regina King fight, which is a blast to watch because it’s been boiling for a while between the two of them, but there are also all these emotional beats, and it didn’t really work to intercut those.
“So we had to rearrange things and backload all of the emotions towards the end of that sequence to keep all the characters on the same page, emotionally, even though they’re in different parts of the town doing different things.”
For Tom, working with a director on his first movie ultimately turned in to an exercise of patience, particularly when his experience told him that some scenes had to be lost. “With some directors, you need to be a little bit careful that you don’t taint the relationship or that you tip your hat towards something so that they get the feeling that you’ve always been wanting to get rid of a scene. Or you’ve always had some agenda.
“You do have to get to that conclusion with them, and I think Jeymes was really good about things that had to come out, even if it was painful.
“We found with this movie that the style was part of the substance of the movie, and if you take the style out, you take some of the soul out of the movie. So I think for both of us, it was a learning experience and highlighted why this has to be done together as a team.”
As was true for so many productions, the movie was shut down nearly as soon as it had started due to the lockdown. Tom returned to New Zealand and started a long-distance collaboration with Sammuel.
“I think I ended up having more interaction than I’ve ever had with a director during a shoot. We would just hang out and talk about the movie and about other movies. He’s a great storyteller, so all I had to do really was listen. And in a way, that’s your role as an editor.
“The director/composer thing was new to me and was very interesting. There was a tension between ‘Director Jeymes’ and ‘Composer Jeymes.’ Director Jeymes loved when I put temp music in because it would make the scene look better, but Composer Jeymes sometimes felt like he either had the wrong idea of the sound in his head or he had the right idea but that it’s a lot more to live up to.
“So that was a bit of a challenge. I always gave him the option because he liked both, so I would give Director Jeymes a cut with all the sound and music and then give Composer Jeymes a cut without it.”
When Your Timeline is Somewhere Around 35,000 Years: Editing “Dune”
Editor Joe Walker’s presence in the same edit room as director Denis Villeneuve was something that they both took for granted and reveled in before they were forcibly separated by Covid. Walker described it in an almost spiritual way to Frame.io’s Art of the Cut.
“Being in the room with Denis, the edit somehow happens in the air between us. It’s partly periods of identifying what a problem might be and then finding a solution which often takes a shorter amount of time than finding what the problem was. It’s really finding why something isn’t ticking as it should do.
“An edit room has to be a safe space for a director. You really need to touch base with the core decision to make the film at some point — you need to decide what kind of film you want to make — in that room.
“There will be days when stuff doesn’t seem to be happening but then masses of stuff happens in one afternoon. Especially when you have a team close by to help with assets like a Bene Gesserit singing voice or a Charlotte Rampling soundalike. It’s a great team that can turn on a sixpence to serve these bursts of creativity.”
Walker has been Villeneuve’s go-to editor for Sicario, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049and Dune parts 1 and 2. For Dune, he had started off on the set in Hungary but as soon as the pandemic struck split from the team to go home. Interestingly, he has a sideways slant on the time spent in lockdown. “The pandemic was really kind to us inasmuch as it gave us the time to really think without the great heat of a schedule bearing down on us.
“It gave us a few months to dream a little bit and follow out instincts and develop things which we did a great deal.”
Walker sees that the extra time he had to think through the edit was particularly helpful in introducing and building the constellation of characters in the film. “You have to familiarize them to the audience properly before you test them. The extra time gave me the chance to really bed them in.”
Walker basked in the forced working from home as part of the lock down. While some might be climbing the walls being away from a collaborative space, he welcomed it. “Rather than staying awake in the middle of the night worrying about part of the work I hadn’t finished from the day, I would get up and go and cut something for half an hour, solve the problem and then go back to bed.”
He also used all the methods in his playbook to find his way through the dense sci-fi tale. “One of the tricks I’ve been using is to ‘flop’ the image. It’s just for myself as other people find it very distracting. At one point I even turned the film black and white with a flopped image. This is late stage, if you do this too early then you’ve blown it.
“But basically by flopping the image and turning it black and white, your brain takes it a different way and it feels like a fresh viewing. It’s a cheat. A film has its moments that you become attached to because they’re very pleasurable. It’s a bit like knowing how a song goes once you heard it ten times. Sometimes you have to remove that to get a sense of the audience.
“You have to asked your imaginary audience ‘what question are they asking now,’ ‘have we successfully answered that question,’ ‘did we successfully pose the question.’ All of those things are the most important things an editor can do.”
One of the huge challenges for Walker was to find simplicity and economy in the film for the 800-page book they were faithfully adhering to. “We also had to pay our dues to the book and to the depth of the imagination that Frank Herbert originally had.
“As an editor you could easily find low-hanging fruit to cut from if you wanted to shorten the film but you would have lost a lot. Including the massive level of world building that is evident. As an editor it would be foolish to disregard that.
“Dune, if nothing else, is one massive work of rhythm. My background is in music and when I was composing, it was still pushing a mouse around. So not too dissimilar. You start developing a sense of what’s foreground, what’s background, there are lots of similarities but the main thing is pace and rhythm.
“That rhythm could be the sound of a thumper or it could be a raising of an eyebrow, or the rhythm of the cuts itself or the bigger, tectonic plates moving underneath the story.
“This film starts quite gently and builds up your interest in the characters and then accelerates and becomes very dynamic.”
With Greig Fraser’s cinematography, including a large section of IMAX footage, Walker felt the edit needed to show restraint on the cut count. “The film has been designed as a cinematic experience so if you’re too busy driving the cuts, it’s exhausting. If you’re at the front of an IMAX screen looking at something moving around too fast, it’s nauseating. The film does have dramatic and violent scenes but you also want to look in to the characters and feel something.”
More insights into Walker’s editing process and why he loves working with Villeneuve so much is that he shoots single camera. “There’s not so much footage to go through and you begin to learn the dailies. That means you can remember certain little scenes that could get you out of jail. Famously the opening of the film Gladiator, when he’s running his hands through the corn, is a B-Roll shot. Someone just remembered that it had been shot and now it’s iconic.”
“Bergman Island:” Scenes (and Dreams) (and Screens) from a Marriage
It’s not often that you hear a director of photography complaining about using film for their project; they’re usually animated. But French DP Denis Lenoir is in no doubt that his new film Bergman Island would have been better off shooting digitally.
He commented about the film’s director, Mia Hansen-Løve’s, love of celluloid, “She only accepted to shoot in digital on her film Eden, because of a lack of budget. But on this film, she was fully decided to return to film, but in 2-perf to save on negative and on laboratory fees. I wasn’t at all excited about this decision!”
Lenoir’s grumbles with film continued after such a bad experience with a local film lab that he pulled the job from them. You can hear the exasperation when he spoke with AF Cinema, the Association of French Directors of Cinematography. “We were working with a film lab in Stockholm at the time that really neglected our screen tests, and we found ourselves with wide format dailies (35mm 2 perf is in 2.4:1 by default). If you add the scratches and the mishandled dust specks everywhere, these first unconvincing results immediately pushed me to delocalize our process and scans to Belgium.”
His gripes with celluloid led the interviewer to question him on his view of film’s future. “I like 35mm but I’m not nostalgic for it. I think that the increased sensitivity on digital cameras allows DPs to no longer have to light for exposure. This is not at all the case in film, unless you unreservedly rely on underexposure, which I never used to do, since I always wanted to deliver a dense negative.”
But Lenoir did concede that film has one advantage over using digital cinematography, “I’d admit there is one advantage, motion blur. It really doesn’t look as nice in digital. Each image in a panoramic shot is sharper in digital; really, too sharp. But even faced with this objective difference, digital solutions are still being developed.
“Experimental techniques in post-production in the USA have already shown that it is possible to recreate or reduce the motion blur at the level of each digital image. So, it’s easy to imagine that post-production techniques will soon be able to be applied to every scene of a film that would require it.”
In an interview with American Cinematographer, Lenoir expanded on how he used the post-production phase to fine-tune the images. “I like to put some warmth in the highlights and some blue in the blacks. But this time, I discovered in the first exterior shots that the highlights were cold, almost on the cyan side, perhaps from the development.” He decided “not to fight it, remembering what I always say to students — go with your images, whatever they are, not against them.”
Lenoir admits that most directors enter “the coloring process with the desire, conscious or not, to stick to the film they have given birth to in the editing room.” But for him, “this is the moment to discover the film that exists without us knowing it yet — away and possibly even against what I had in mind when filming, and away and possibly against the workprint they were editing with.”
But maybe Lenoir had the last laugh as far as the use of film was concerned, “Mia originally wanted to shoot the film in 1.85:1 aspect ratio. But, as early as scouting, I began to suggest to her that we work in 2.4:1. Nonetheless, she wasn’t persuaded, thinking that her first English-language film didn’t need what she felt was an overly American touch.
“The other, more unexpected consequence was that Mia watched the tests in wide format and finally agreed that 2.4:1 was definitely made for the Island of Farö, to my great satisfaction!”
Apart from the discussions over the film’s format, it seems that Bergman Island was a happy shoot, although stretched over a two year period when a couple of the lead actors couldn’t reschedule other commitments .
Lenoir explains how the production survived and was able to carry on. “The film could have stopped before it had even begun. But Mia, who is extremely resourceful, bounced back and offered a role to actress Vicky Krieps. She accepted the role, but the character of Tony remained without an actor. Mia convinced the producers to begin a first session of shooting, beginning with the ‘film within a film’ parts, played by Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen.
“But, because she knows that it is important to lock in one’s cast, she insisted on filming as many scenes as possible with Vicky Krieps. Shooting began in early August and ended in mid-September 2018. We parted ways with the film unfinished, hoping that the missing actor would be found so that we could return to work the following summer. Finally, Tim Roth joined the film during the winter, and we returned to Bergman’s island for a month in early June 2019.”
You may think from the format wars with the director and troubles with signed-on leading actors that this film was an unhappy experience, but Hansen-Løve’s experience was akin to a tribute to the legendary Swedish filmmaker. “Bergman Island is actually a film that, despite a few incidents, brought me unprecedented joy. It’s probably my first film that somehow got written ‘all by itself,’ without the pain I usually feel during the writing process. I felt like doors that had been locked so far were opening and that the island made it possible.”
Hansen-Løve had started developing a passionate relationship with Bergman’s work about ten years before and felt magnetically drawn to the island. She had written a film script about a director writing a film script while she was on holiday with her husband. This slightly meta theme seemed destined to be filmed on the Swedish island of Farö where Bergman had lived and worked and shot many of his famous films. He died there in 2007.
For Hansen-Løve, “there was never an option for me to not film on film, but I thought I would film in 1:85,” she told Filmmaker Magazine. But once the filmmakers arrived on Farö, “our experience on the island — watching the island, discovering it, wondering how we were going to film it — progressively led to wanting to film scope because it would be more faithful to my vision of the island,” she said.
“It was the result of my observation of the island, of its light, of its space, of its atmosphere that made me want to film in scope. And I [didn’t think that] because Bergman didn’t do it, I wanted to do it. It’s just that I noticed that Bergman didn’t do it. He never filmed in scope. I thought, ‘Oh, that would be part of how to film the island in a different way.’ ”
Farö has become something of a Bergman theme park with bus tours and lectures, but the island became the central character for the movie. Hansen-Løve insists that the island’s timeless landscapes, stone walls, wildflowers, black sheep, countless birds played their part. “Bergman’s presence was overwhelming, but it turned out to be both soothing and stimulating.”
Lenoir agreed with how the island suited the story so much that shooting the film in part was easy and anyone could have done it, he claimed. “For example, the nighttime marriage scene in Bergman Island. I thought it was very beautiful in the camera’s viewfinder. But, in reality, few elements of this scene are my doing. The set is just magnificent, the sunset, splendid.
“The set designer had placed lanterns and torches at just the right places. Any one of my colleagues would doubtlessly have done just about the same thing as I did in terms of set lighting on the image wouldn’t have suffered any great disparity.”
Lenoir’s false modesty seems part of his character as he praised other crew members. “Our Belgian key grip, Témoudhine Janssens, was really one of the pillars of this film. Because Mia wanted to use a great deal of camera movements, he was summoned daily to install meters upon meters of tracks with his two grips.
“But the camera never went on extravagant moves. The director’s rhythm and the choreography with the actors made these movements rather discreet and natural. The frequent use of narrow tracks was also appropriate. The reduced floorspace it took up made it easier to do backwards movements facing the actors, who were standing on either side of the track.”
Lenoir concludes that he hopes that his “invisible” photography was appreciated on the film; perhaps more false modesty. “I’m coming to realize that many directors ask me for an ‘invisible’ photography. I think this is a very French concept and that perhaps I left for the USA at a time in my career when I wanted to make films that were more ‘visually marked.’
“But, with time, I must admit that invisible photography is really what I do best! On Bergman Island, I hope that I’ve succeeded in obtaining discreet, yet extremely pleasant, lighting. I wanted to succeed at the unreconcilable, photography I’m proud of but that no one notices!”
“Bergman Island is Hansen-Løve’s ode to the passage of time, to the way the years complicate what we ask from love and from ourselves,” says Critical Mass’ Annie Geng. The film “melts fully into metanarrative,” and as Chris and Tony, played by Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth, take an excursion to an island, the film becomes “a portrait of romantic doubt that swells to existential proportions.”
The play of the double narrative is a nod towards Bergman’s fascination with his “double self.” Bergman says that side of him was “planned and very secure,” but also “unknown… unpleasant… not rational… impulsive and extremely emotional.” Geng proposes the counterpart for Chris is the screenplay she’s writing that then transitions to a movie within the movie.
“Hansen-Løve’s oeuvre explores how we live with the choices others have made for us, particularly when it comes to the big questions: love, self-creation, personal freedom.” In reference to Bergman’s other movies, Chris and Tony even wonder why the films couldn’t have “more lightness, more tenderness” to them.
Hansen-Løve uses her films as her own version of philosophy. “If the preoccupations of the characters in Bergman Island sometimes feel inscrutable, it’s because the fundamental problems they wrestle with — selfhood, art, love — are interminably more so,” says Geng.
Hansen-Løve already had the idea of the film-in-the-film after her visits to the island to express what writing and filming was to her.
“It seemed to me that the best way to capture that idea was to do a film where I was showing not only the process, but the way you go back and forth between reality and fiction, between everyday life and the imaginary world that’s actually connected to your life,” she told MovieMaker Magazine.
In an interview with Elvis Mitchell for KCRW’s The Treatment, Hansen-Løve shares that Bergman Island isn’t intended to be autobiographical but, just like the other films she’s directed, it is personal. “One of the things that made me want to write to make this film was the feeling that I had never seen cinema represented in films in a way that could really connect with what it is for me,” she explains. While there are films about filmmaking, Hansen-Løve notes that there aren’t many, if any, about the process of writing a screenplay.
Looking back on all the films she’s directed, “they were all dealing with things not necessarily that I experienced myself, but sometimes people I had met, people who were gone, people who were close to me,” she says. It’s easy to compare the story of Bergman Island to Hansen-Løve’s personal life, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely autobiographical. “And, of course, there is [an autobiographical dimension], but in a way, there is one in all of my films.”
But there is a commonality between many of her films — solitude and adulthood. When asked why she doesn’t like the word adulthood much, she responded with, “Because you’ll always want to oppose it to childhood and I still feel so close to childhood in many ways.” Of course, Hansen-Løve knows that her films also show characters looking for wisdom that comes with growing up while also letting go of certain things.
With Bergman Island, Hansen-Løve didn’t plan on making it a denser movie. She simply wanted to capture the how the writing process can create some confusion, blurring the line between life and fiction. “I had my own quest too while I was writing it, and that led me to that story… it’s not like I wanted to make a film in the film,” she said. “It’s really the emotion and my desire to express what inspiration is for me, what creation is for me, and how you live with that, how you are a woman and a woman in love, and then an artist and how you try to make them cope, and try to make your life work with your life as an artist.”
Want more? Lenoir’s production diary for Bergman Island provides details on the making of this unique feature project set on Fårö, the Swedish island where famed film auteur Ingmar Bergman shot four features, lived, died, and is buried. Head over to American Cinematographer to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
Quantum math, Apple design, Polynesian tribes, and magnetic sand combine with freezing location shoots. Based on the sci-fi books by Isaac Asimov, the head-spinning, intergalactic themes of the Apple TV+ series Foundation required world-building on a planetary scale.
“But if you don’t have anything to point to at the beginning it becomes daunting to develop the visual language,” co-creator David Goyer explained to Creative Bloq. “We kept coming back to ‘What’s something we haven’t seen before?’ “
That was thrown over to concept artist Stephan Martinière.
“As more and more sci-fi films are being made creating a unique visual signature becomes harder but there are still plenty of interesting visual ideas to come up with unique visuals,” Martinière said in a separate interview with Creative Bloq. “One of them being proposed was to use the Apple sleek design and try to carry it in some of the spaceship looks. Another was to give the Anacreons a very unique tribal look loosely based on the Polynesian designs. There was also a very specific architectural direction for some of the environments.”
Tribal Looking Spaceships
Goyer’s brief was to describe the emotional effect he wanted a scene or object to achieve. “The Empire is aggressive and male so I wanted their ships to be like knives, which meant that they weren’t just folding space but ripping it,” he says.
Martinière said the early concepts for the ships were cool but too modern and did not ultimately fit the storyline of an ancient and feudal society. Incorporating less sophisticated tribal designs into their technology helped give the Anacreons “a unique visual signature but also established the right narrative.” The front part of the ship looks like two ancient carved wood shields.
“Does it need to look like it can it work? I would say I have seen hundreds of different designs for space ships and I don’t think anyone worries about that. Even Transformers make you believe the impossible.”
It’s different for a costume or a weapon. The crossbow is a good example. Martinière had to think of a design that could be functional if the weapon was going to be a handheld practical prop. Even then it still needed to be designed for the mechanical part to work. The simpler solution, he says, was to make “a cool shape and have it fire a laser beam that works too.”
As the VFX shot count went from 1,500 to 3,900 across the 10 episodes, an additional 19 facilities had to be brought in to support lead vendors DNEG, Important Looking Pirates and Outpost VFX.
However, Goyer was determined to film as much on location as possible — about 60% of the production in the end, he estimates. This included principal photography at Troy Studios in Limerick (Ireland), Germany, Iceland, Malta, Fuerteventura and Tenerife.
“The visual effects had to be as naturalistic and photoreal as possible,” he explained. “I want the show to feel like a Terrence Malick movie and for the actors to experience as much as they can in reality. I wanted each country to represent a different world and for the actors to feel cold.”
Physical sets included the “Aircar.” “We got a dune buggy from Germany and brought it back to Limerick,” states Conor Dennison, one of three supervising art directors on the project. “We cut it down the middle, stretched the whole thing out for an extra 10 to 15 feet, put in a new roll cage, new hydraulics, and built an Aircar sitting on top of it. One driver was facing forward and the other facing backwards underneath looking at the actor overhead. When they were going to the left the pneumatics were set up in such a way that it would go to the right, so the actor would go the right way.”
Holograms in Foundation take the form of “Sandograms.” “The majority of our holograms are meant to be solid particles that coalesce into whatever the hologram was,” notes Chris MacLean, production VFX supervisor. “It worked extremely well with static objects and a 2.5D approach developed with DNEG.”
Mural of Souls
Displaying the history of the Empire in the Imperial Palace is the Mural of Souls, which is made of moving color pigments. The initial approach was to put acrylic ink in a pan, using Ferrofluid, and run a magnet underneath it; that was filmed at high speed which looked cool, but it would have been impractical to have the mural wet all of the time.
“Then we came up with the samsara where the Tibetan monks make mandala out of sand and wipe it away,” production VFX supervisor Chris MacLean recounts. “What if we take that and turn it up to 11. Take the magnets from the Ferrofluid and have the sand be magnetic. The magnetic sand stays on the wall, twirls and makes these crazy images.”
Simulations were placed on top of the physical mural created by the art department. “There was depth given to the various key features on the mural so depending on what was actually there, there was a custom particle layout, motion paths and noise fields,” continues production VFX supervisor, Michael Enriquez. “It was a lot of back-and-forth testing, and once we got it to work, the effect went throughout the entire shot.”
The device known as the Prime Radiant displays the lifework of revolutionary mathematician Hari Seldon (Jared Harris).
“We know that Hari Seldon and Gaal Dornick [Lou Llobell] are the only people that can understand this math, but we’re so far into the future I don’t want to see Arabic numbers,” remarks Goyer. “I also want it to be beautiful and spiritual. When Gaal and Hari look at the math it’s almost like they are communicating with angels or God.”
The solution was found by Chris Bahry, co-founder of Toronto-based studio Tendril. According to Maclean, Bahry does quantum math in his spare time: “He came up with something that I hope becomes the ultimate sci-fi MacGuffin.”
“Wife of a Spy:” International Thriller and 8K Proof of Concept Production
A few years ago, Japanese filmmaker and director of Wife of a Spy, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, received a phone call from Tadashi Nohara from NHK, Japan’s National Broadcasting Corporation. Kurosawa recounted, “Nohara was looking to shoot a movie in Kobe City, using an 8K camera. Tadashi was my student from Tokyo University of the Arts at the time and already had a few movies under his belt as a director.
“I didn’t think of it as an official offer from a producer, but rather as a request from a former student. I remembered telling him, ‘If you can come up with something interesting, I might consider it.’ The conversation ended there and I soon forgot about it.
“Six months later, Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Tadashi came to me with the plot line for Wife of a Spy. It was more a long summary of a movie rather than a story. When I asked if we had the budget for it, neither of them had an answer. So, I told them to think about it and soon forgot about it again.
“Some time passed, Tadashi called again. This time it was to introduce the producer, and things started to move along.”
As a proof of concept for an 8K broadcast, making a movie is a huge undertaking and has in fact hindered the movie on its way to theaters. The original 30 frames-per-second movie was shot with Sharp 8K cameras equipped with Zeiss Master Prime lenses at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 — it was later changed to 1.85:1 for theatrical release at a more regular 2K resolution.
But that wasn’t all that changed, as the director told Filmmaker Magazine, “Because the TV version was in 8K, very high-resolution images, it was just not possible to then present the same material in a theatrical medium. We had to redo all the color grading; we re-did the sound as well. But the content of the film really is not so different, so for an audience it would not feel very different.
“The 8K version, with very new technology, cannot even be watched on a regular TV. You can only watch it on a special 8K television. The image is amazing, and so is the sound. Not many people have been able to see this version because of the technology, but that version has really left a big impression on me. It’s also how I originally made the film.
“Of course I like both versions, but the film version in some ways has a calmer sense to it. I think it’s very similar to the tone and feeling of my past films.
“8K is very, very clear. When things are made up for it, you can tell very easily; it looks like a craft. With the costumes, production design, even the make-up, I was very aware that you could see when things were fake. That’s going to affect the look in both versions. I didn’t have a huge budget for this film, but it was all hand-crafted.
“Since it was my very first time doing a period piece like this, I really had not dealt with costumes in the way that we did with this film. The costumes from that era were not readily available for us to use, so we had to make everything from scratch.
“Everything was measured and tailored to the actors and both the filmmakers and actors go through that process of tailoring the costumes. They do very gradually become their characters in the process, and that was a very interesting process to look at.”
Wife of a Spy marks Kurosawa’s first period piece. It takes place in 1940-41, telling the story of Yūsaku Fukuhara and his attempts to expose his government’s atrocities in Manchuria, as well as that of his wife Satoko, torn between her husband and her country.
This is a classic Kurosawa set up. A small, domestic story blown up to movie-size proportions. This could be the tale of any husband who keeps secrets from his wife in a mistaken effort to protect her, but in Wife of a Spy, affairs are treason and a husband’s secrets are locked up in a literal safe inside a storage room.
Writing for Mubi, Aaron E. Hunt thought that shooting the film in 8K definitely wasn’t the choice of the director and certain scenes featuring film projectors were his way of a subtle protest.
“This was not his choice, it was the job, but there’s no less irony in shooting a period film that is explicitly nostalgic for celluloid — there are several scenes of people watching an 8mm home movie on a projector screen in the dark — on a state-of-the-art digital camera, and no less ironic that some people screened the film on a link capped at 720p on their laptops for the 2020 Venice Film Festival premiere.
Speak, Memories: Making Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast”
Kenneth Branagh’s evocative semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story set in 1969 is shot “to feel like a Life magazine spread,” according to cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, BSC, GSC.
Belfast is Branagh’s lived experience of Northern Ireland as expressed through nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill). He lives with his Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and Pa (Jamie Dornan) and near his Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds). It’s a poem to his immediate family and to the city which is depicted as a close-knit community on the verge of being shattered by three decades of violence and sectarian division.
“This film is about the human condition and the landscape of the human condition is the human face,” says Zambarloukos, who has worked with Branagh since Sleuth on projects including Cinderella and Death on the Nile. “The methodology here was how do we create great portraits. I think black and white has a very transcendental quality. It can be two things at the same time. It can illustrate the within and the without simultaneously and seems to talk to both the present and the past very easily and more so than color.”
Up until the 1970s, action-adventure films were given the Technicolor treatment while smaller scale drama were predominantly shot black and white. “In that sense we’re not doing anything different to how B&W has been used in the past,” he says.
Mixing Color and B&W
“There is something really lucid and clear and at the same time ethereal and mysterious inherent in black-and-white photography. I feel color is often better at being descriptive — you can see it’s autumn because of the red leaves in shot. But since filmmaking tends to be about narrowing the focus for the audience, about how and where they see things, black-and-white is a fantastic way of capturing emotion.”
The film opens in color and also flashes into color for scenes showing Branagh/Buddy’s love for cinema as a child. Raquel Welch in a fur-skinned bikini in One Million Years B.C. and the flying car of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang leave strong visual and emotional imprints.
It’s not the first time Branagh has combined B&W with color. His directorial debut feature Dead Again (1991) contained flashbacks to 1940s Hollywood in black and white. The opening scene of Death on the Nile, which finally gets its cinema release in the New Year, is black-and-white but shot in color.
Shooting black-and-white in color was the DP’s preferred option for Belfast. “One thing I like about always seeing things in color is that I have far more control over skies,” he explains. “If I lose the color in the sensor, in the DI, or in the capture then if it’s film neg I can’t then give those colors a more precise grey tone.
“In the DI, especially with black-and-white, I like to be able to assign where in the grey scale something is whether that’s a sky, clothing, a face. By having color you can key it, matte, it and be more precise.”
That is a technique inspired by master photographer Ansel Adams. In his books, The Camera, The Negative, and The Print (published 1948-50), he talked about assigning tones of grey in a zone system “and seeing a picture before you take it.”
Zambarloukos says, “Those seminal books were for analogue black and white stills of the time but you can take those principals and apply them to modern photography and a DI. In essence, as long as you see it, you can control it.”
The DP’s digital imaging technician and dailies team was led by Jo Barker at UK facility Digital Orchard. Goldcrest colorist Rob Pizzey handled the DI. “Our dailies are more contrasty than the final film,” Zambarloukos says. “A lot of our tests were about capturing texture and weave. I don’t think we manipulated things to an extreme in the end but it was nice to have the control to bring things down or up if we needed.”
Zambarloukos says he often finds tonal and compositional cues from the work of Magnum photographers. For Belfast, he found the work of Welsh photojournalist Philip Jones Griffiths illustrative of the era.
“In his images he showed a juxtaposition of family and military life. There’s a really famous one of a woman mowing her lawn with a solider in the foreground. It was this depiction of conflicting things in an image that we wanted to achieve photographically with Ken.”
This idea informed their use of camera and composition. The riot scene was shot handheld with two cameras and included an elaborate set up on a circular track around Buddy for the Molotov cocktail explosion at the film’s beginning. Mostly, the film is shot single camera with Zambarloukos feeling that he should be quite still in his composition “and leave space to allow the film to breathe.”
This pared-down approach relies on the director’s ability to block the mise en scène. “Ken is such a master of knowing where to place actors and how he wants them to interact. In this case, less is more. There’s a stillness to the action and I think that slightly wider framing helps in that way.
“I try to give [editor Una Ní Dhonghaíle] really direct eyelines so that when you do let a scene play like that then the character’s face, their eyeline, is as much as possible not facing away from camera or too much in profile. There is a directness. We try and choregraph with the camera to close the eyeline as much as we can and by doing so we are hopefully being engaging, inviting and immersive.”
Branagh and Zambarloukos typically shoot on film, yet this is the first picture they’ve made together on digital. There were a number of reasons for this, among those was that the production was among the first in the UK to shoot under COVID, in August 2020.
Anything the production could do to minimize personal contact in the space was put into effect. Changing film magazines being one casualty. Zambarloukos also operated for this reason too (with Andrei Austin on Steadicam).
It wasn’t just a COVID-enforced decision, though. Branagh wanted the freedom to shoot longer takes. Most importantly, digital suited the creative aesthetic.
“We wanted to shoot available light using either practical’s or with a set designed so that the windows faced sunlight. We blocked so our actors would sit near windows. Rather than a documentary film we went for a photo reportage look so it felt natural to use the high ASA rating of the Alexa LF. The LF Mini is a game changing camera. It has a nice soft palette yet is crystal sharp and clear. With that medium format digital we found a sweet spot.”
He retained the large format 65mm lenses used on Death on theNile and Murder on the Orient Express, a mix of older Spheros from the David Lean era and System 65 glass made for the format’s resurgence in the early nineties on films like Ron Howard’s Far and Away (1992) and Branagh’s Hamlet (1996).
“I found that combination worked really well especially in 1.85:1. It’s the first time we’ve shot in that aspect ratio instead of 2.39:1.”
The crisp image is a deliberate choice. “I didn’t use diffusion or add grain or denoise it. It is pretty much what you see out of that sensor and those lenses.”
Branagh’s regular production designer, Jim Clay, designed in accordance with COVID-safe rules and the intended aesthetic. For example, there were discussions about keeping set windows open for ventilation.
The sets were built in southeast London near Longcross Studios where Branagh and his keys were polishing Death on the Nile. An unused school site was used to build the film’s school, hospital, and church. The fields around it — including a basketball court — are also featured. The interior sets of the houses were built here too, without back or front and covered by canvas as weather protection. At the nearby Farnborough airfield they built the façade of the terrace house fronts and redressed that street to film scenes for Ma and Pa’s street or Granny and Pop’s street or a third street occasionally seen. The riot was filmed there too.
“The cinema and theatre were chairs, a small screen, black drapes and a projector in one of the airfield hangers,” says Zambarloukos. “That hanger was also where we placed our bus to film rear projection in camera for the bus journey from the theatre. There’s a real economy to this but I think we built to the scale required.”
The themes of the film resonated with many of the cast and crew who could relate personally to the humanity of everyday people and the political forces of division. Zambarloukos for example, is a Greek Cypriot and recalls the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974.
“I was four years old and my father had to seek work abroad [Branagh’s family also emigrated]. Belfast could easily be a Cypriot story. It’s clearly a universal story. Ken is writing about finding joy in the sorrows of life. If such circumstances happen to you, you have a choice how to live your life and the choice’s Ken’s family made are some of the best you can take.”