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Kevin Smith on the Media's Coverage of 'Fatgate'

February 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Kevin Smith

February 24, 2010 | 12:30 pm

Smith

Kevin Smith has a big mouth and he knows it. When he got bounced off a Southwest Airlines flight for allegedly being too fat earlier this month, he quickly spread the news, via Twitter, complaining about the unfair treatment he felt that he’d received from the airline. And when the media treated the story as something of a lighthearted farce, the beefy 39-year-old filmmaker was soon loudly assailing the media for its snarky take on the whole event.

Cop_out_smoking_gun_poster

Smith’s propensity to shoot from the hip has also gotten him in hot water in Hollywood. Years before Warners Picture Group President Jeff Robinov hired Smith to direct “Cop Out,” the new Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan buddy comedy that opens Friday, Smith had gone out of his way to insult the studio chief after they’d had a disastrous pitch meeting.

“I don’t even remember why things went so horribly — it was just like a bad first date,” Smith told me Tuesday, punctuating virtually every anecdote in our hourlong conversation with bursts of colorfully profane language. “Afterwards, I wrote somewhere that he was a balding studio clock puncher, which kinda’ cooled our relationship for a while.”

It turns out that Robinov managed to get over the insult. When Smith was at Comic-Con a couple of years ago, promoting his film “Zak and Miri Make a Porno,” Robinov happened to see the filmmaker when he was on a panel with such hotshot directors as Judd Apatow and Zack Snyder. “They’d all made movies that had made tons more money than any of mine, but Comic-Con was my home ice,” Smith recalls. “When I came on, everyone went crazy. They were my peeps. I guess Robinov was impressed, ’cause afterward he called to set up a meeting.”

Smith was still a little nervous when he showed up on the Warners lot, but Robinov put him at ease by saying, as Smith recalls, “When I leave this job, what I really want to do is produce your talk show.” Not long afterward, Robinov sent Smith the “Cop Out” script, then known by its original title, “A Couple of Dicks.” Smith loved the script, written by the brothers Robb and Mark Cullen, which felt like a throwback to the kind of buddy pictures Smith’s dad had taken him to see as a kid in New Jersey.

“I called Robinov back and told him it was funny, but I still didn’t realize why he’d sent it to me. I said, ‘What’s the deal? Do you want me to do a cameo as Dave the fat guy? If you want me to rewrite it, I ain’t buying, because it’s already really good.’ Finally, Jeff said, ‘It’s funny that you’ve made six guesses and you haven’t guessed director yet.’ It really floored me, because I’d never read anyone else’s script with an eye on directing. I always do my own stuff.”

But Smith realized that the raucous, R-rated buddy comedy was right in his wheelhouse. “It finally clicked — this is ‘Clerks’ with cops. Just two dudes hanging around, talking to each other, with the tent-pole action sequences thrown in to make some more money. It really reminded me of ‘Fletch,’ one of my favorite Michael Ritchie movies, where it was just a funny guy talking, along with the car chases. I finally went, ‘Hey, if there’s one thing I am trained to do, it’s shoot people talking a lot.’ ”

Smith is one of the pillars of the indie film world, having written and directed such quirky (and yes, talky) low-budget films as “Clerks,” “Chasing Amy” and “Dogma.” But his career had been sputtering from a lack of inspiration in recent years, with “Jersey Girl” and “Zack and Miri” being disappointments, both with critics and at the box office. So he was ready to be a director for hire.

“A movie like ‘Fletch’ was a real role model for me,” he says. “It won’t cure brain cancer, but it goes down smooth, like a good milkshake. For years, I kept making movies that were like medicine. And finally, 15 years into my career, after ‘Zack and Miri’ collapsed at the box office, I realized I was spinning my wheels. I couldn’t write anything, I guess because I felt I didn’t have anything new to say. I mean, you have to write about your life, but what was I gonna write? That some fat guy’s movie tanked? I’m too happy now. If I’m not drawing from pain, and all I have is the rich man’s pain of privilege, then I had to find something new to do. I was staring at 40 and I was just ready to grow up.”

Smith also realized that it was getting more difficult than ever to find money for personal films. “The specialty film world is dead and dying like Krypton and I figured that I had to throw myself into the rocket and blast off the planet to survive. Steven Soderbergh had already done the hard work, showing the studio guys that these indie filmmakers could shoot good movies. And I have to say I was impressed by Robinov. I was only half right when I called him a bald clock puncher. He’s smart and really works his ass off.”

How did Smith get along with the notoriously prickly Bruce Willis? And what really bugs him about the media coverage of his dust-up with Southwest? Keep reading:

It is Robinov who has masterminded the Warners creative formula of pairing cutting-edge filmmakers with mainstream material, resulting in such successes as Chris Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” and Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” as well as clunkers like the Wachowski brothers’ “Speed Racer.” It turns out that “Cop Out” had a complicated history. The script had originally been set up at another company with Robin Williams and James Gandolfini attached to star. When that combination fell apart, Warners picked up the script, hoping to team Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, with “The Wedding Crashers” director David Dobkin at the helm.

But salary disputes and debates over the R rating caused a split, with the actors heading off to make an entirely different buddy picture called “The Other Guys,” scheduled to come out this summer from Sony. When Smith came on board, he inherited a movie budgeted at $75 million without any stars. One day the film’s producer, Mark Platt, called to ask what he thought of Bruce Willis. Smith responded with a string of unprintable expletives that he says represented a sign of great joy. Soon afterward, Tracy Morgan hopped on board. Once Smith persuaded the studio to let him make what he calls “his parents’  kind” of R-rated movie, which he describes as “one with some bad language, but not a lot of tasteless [oral sex] jokes,” the project had a new head of steam.

“We all took pay cuts to keep it R-rated, which with me meant I gave up 80% of my salary, but it was worth it,” he says, explaining that, thanks to some tax rebates, the movie cost roughly $37 million to make. He certainly wasn’t worried about his actors having good chemistry, always a key ingredient with a buddy picture. “Tracy just oozes chemistry,” he says with a hearty laugh. “He could have chemistry with a ceramic ashtray. Bruce loved him. He kept calling him kid, even though Tracy’s over 40, so there’s not really that big an age difference. But I think calling him kid meant Bruce liked him.”

Smith insists that he didn’t have any problems communicating with Willis, at least once he realized that Willis wasn’t going to do anything that he felt was out of his comfort zone. Smith illustrates the issue with an unbelievably raunchy metaphor involving a detailed description of oral sex, then teasingly said, “Try and get that into your old-media story.” I asked him if he could offer a PG-13 version of the story.

“Put it this way,” he said. “On the first day of shooting, I started to mess with Bruce, trying to get him to do something crazy, and he took out his gun and went bang — and shot me in the head. His point was pretty obvious. He’s done this part so many times that he knows what works and what doesn’t. He’s the caretaker of the Bruce Willis persona. He’s been a star for 25 years while most of his peers have fallen by the wayside, so he knows what works for his image. Basically, we all tried to make him laugh, figuring if we got Bruce just to smile once we’ve have something to tell our kids about.”

It would probably be fair to say that, judging from the rough, sometimes insulting treatment Smith got in the media after the Southwest Airlines debacle, that the filmmaker has a lot to learn about the care and feeding of his own image. Most people who were bumped from a flight for supposedly being too fat would’ve kept the incident to themselves. But not Smith, who went after Southwest with a vengeance, first on Twitter, then on his website, which has been filled with a host of heated diatribes directed at the airline.

Smith basically makes two points about the whole imbroglio: He was treated unfairly and he had every right to shout about it from the rooftops. “Look at the pictures of me at the ‘Cop Out’ premiere last night and tell me — is that dude really too fat to fly?” he says, though I’ve excised a couple of choice profanities. “Does that dude really need two seats? Southwest just messed up and then they sold the lie that I was too fat to fly to support a policy that’s unfair in a million different ways.”

What really ticked Smith off was the media reaction, which he thought was snarky, self-righteous and lazy, in the sense that nearly every story simply went for the jokes and the outrage, but only offered the most cursory examination of the airline’s actual policies. Having read all too many of the stories myself, I can’t say it was the media’s finest hour, though I suspect that most reporters felt that if Smith was treating the whole affair with broad humor, why shouldn’t they do the same.

Still, Smith remained incensed. “They’re really pathetic,” he says, punctuating his rant with even more expletives. “It really sickened me that after all the years I’ve been so open with the press that they didn’t bother to dig at all. I was unfairly bounced and discriminated against, but they never bothered to tell that story. They just went with the easy fat jokes. Every TV show imaginable asked me to go on, from Oprah to Larry King, but I turned them all down because I didn’t want to turn into Octomom. I told the Warners marketers — don’t put me in front of the cameras at the junket because you’re just gonna get four minutes of a guy screaming about an … airline.”

Smith is especially peeved at all the media people who believe that he brought this whole thing down on himself by incessantly tweeting about it instead of keeping his mouth shut. “That shows you how much the old media knows about today’s universe,” he says. “In the world of social media, where everyone has a cellphone camera, this was gonna get out whether I wanted it to or not. So I’m not letting anyone tell the story but me. Once the airline started lying, I did what any good comedian would do — use comedy to soothe my pain.”

Smith paused for a rare moment of reflection amid his no-stop rants. “I grew up fat, so I know that you have to stick up for yourself because I know that you’re gonna get called a fat guy whether you like it or not. So when you’ve been wronged, you have to speak out. It’s like asking someone whose been assaulted or raped — why’d you say something about it? It’s basically self-defense. I have to say that the whole situation sickened me. All I saw was hatred and snarkiness and cynicism.”

Fortunately, he’s had a happy experience making his first studio movie. “I’d do another one in a heartbeat,” he says. “It’s just a popcorner. I mean, no one’s gonna ask, ‘What’s the message of ‘Cop Out’? But we had a lot of fun. The studio gave us the box and all the dimensions and we found a way to fit all the good stuff in the box without breaking it, Who could ask for more?”

Photo of Kevin Smith by Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times.

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Categories: CREW, INTERVIEWS

LA to Film Crews: Come Home to Film

February 26, 2010 Leave a comment

LA to film crews: come home

February 24, 2010 |  9:00 am
Marketing

Hollywood has never been shy about self-promotion, except when it comes to touting its own backyard.

New York touts a “Made in N.Y.” program featuring local film and TV production crew members who share their work experience in the city.

Los Angeles, however, has been low key — some would say complacent — when it comes to singing the praises of filming close to home at a time when rivals beyond California’s borders are grabbing a bigger share of the production pie.

Now, a coalition of industry, labor and city officials wants to remedy the situation by launching a broad-based public education campaign that would herald the economic benefits of the film industry to Los Angeles — while thanking local residents for putting up with the occasional inconvenience of crews in their neighborhoods.

The details are still being worked out, but the marketing blitz, expected to be unveiled by April, would likely feature ads on billboards and bus benches, as well as public service announcements on radio and TV, and even in local movie theaters. Expect to see production trucks plastered with banners trumpeting how many jobs were created on a given show.

“With so much competition, L.A. and the region has to really step up and make the community aware of the value of our industry, and how many people earn their living from it,” said Pamm Fair, who chairs FilmL.A. Inc., the nonprofit film permitting clearinghouse that is spearheading the campaign. “We need to do everything we can to keep jobs here.”

The idea of selling L.A. as a filming destination isn’t new. In fact, city officials and film promoters have talked for several years about launching such a campaign, but it never took off.

Pressure to do something, however, has mounted as the region has lost thousands of production jobs to other locales, sapping an industry that still generates an estimated 250,000 jobs in Los Angeles County.

Although California’s new film incentives have helped to slow the decline, on-location filming last year suffered its steepest drop since tracking began in 1993, reflecting a long-term flight of filming not only to international rivals such as Toronto and Vancouver, but also to Louisiana, Michigan and New Mexico.

The state’s share of U.S. feature film production plunged to 31% in 2008, down from 66% in 2003, according to the California Film Commission. And only 57% of all TV pilots were shot in L.A. in 2009, down from 81% in 2004, according to FilmL.A.

Cinematographer Ed Gutentag, who recently launched a website called shootmoviesincalifornia.com devoted to keeping film projects in-state, says a campaign to promote local production is critical.

“People need to be made aware of this before it’s too late,” said Gutentag, who is filming a documentary about the effects of runaway production on local crews. “This is a critical issue, not just for grips, electricians and camera operators, but all the businesses that service the industry.”

FilmL.A. will contribute about $25,000 to help the campaign get set up with a slogan and logo, but the goal is for much of the overall cost — estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars — to be borne through donated services provided by film editors, producers, local talent and vendors. A theater chain has agreed to provide free use of its trailers at local theaters. Hollywood’s major unions also will be asked to pitch in, while the city is expected to offer use of its space for ads.

The city is considering expanding FilmL.A.’s marketing role, among other steps to help the film industry, such as offering free parking on city properties to film crews.

The nonprofit group handles film permits on behalf of the city and unincorporated areas of the county. Its predecessor, the Entertainment Industry Development Corp., previously played a larger role in marketing and promotion of the local industry, but that function was scaled back after a scandal forced the ouster of former chief Cody Cluff in 2004.

The fallout prompted a series of changes to improve oversight and management, including establishing independent audits and a board run by industry, labor and neighborhood representatives, rather than politicians.

-Richard Verrier

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Categories: CREW, PRODUCTION

Interview: Martin Scorsese Talks Shutter Island

February 19, 2010 Leave a comment
“I do the best I can with every movie I make”, was the answer given by Mr Scorsese after being called the “Greatest Living Director” at the Shutter Island Press Conference in London ― pretty modest I would say. Martin Scorsese is and always will be the one of the greatest directors to ever hit the film industry. With his career spanning nearly 50 years, he has made some of the most beloved cinematic masterpieces ever created, this includes Goodfellas, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, finally winning his overdue Best Director Academy Award in 2007 with The Departed, and now he takes on the psychological thriller, Shutter Island.Some people questioned the film due to the move of it’s release date. Often people say that his best is in his past but they are wrong. Scorsese’s new film, shows that he is still a force to be reckoned with, and there are no signs of conventionality or flabbiness to be seen anywhere in this film. He chose this material because it was…

…the vocabulary of cinemas past and the nature of Gothic literature that opened the door. It was enticing, I didn’t know how to tell the story without utilizing that vocabulary.

The references are noticeable, the site of Gothic mansions, abandoned churches and graveyards, foreboding trees and forests, deep dark caves and cliffs, the twists and turns of a very complex thriller, the use of brooding music to emphasize the overall tone of the film and dealing with psychological fears of the leading character.

The mood and tone of the picture and the atmosphere was in my head, it’s in my blood in a way. Once I decided to make the film, I have to find my way into that mood to choose, select, emphasize moments and sound and ultimately thats when I call in my collaborators.

This is one of the very few films that Scorsese has very used an original score, as most of his scores consist of Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” or music from a particular period. Scorsese brought in composer Robbie Robertson to help create the moody score, which most consists of modern symphonic music he still did it in his own way. The score for this film “turned into an experiment and [Robertson] would send me Cd’s of different sounds” and then Scorsese was able to sync in the music to the film.

As much as I admired film scores, you know how much I have collected each film score, Bernard Herrmann who I was lucky to work with, I was extremely lucky to work with Elmer Bernstein and Howard Shore. But I always imagined films with my own score because I didn’t come from that world or period of film making.

Much like Jimmy Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Leonardo DiCaprio’s takes on the role of a tortured detective who will do anything to solve a murder. There are many echoes back to Hitchcock’s classic, both films show their leading character’s battling their own demons and haunted past, in order to solve a mystery. Both films embrace the psychological horror and violence, which makes his characters so compelling to watch. Vertigo has a special place in the director’s heart, as “it’s a film that I am obsessed with, it was a film I didn’t understand when I was 15, but it was one I kept revisiting“. He even has his own 35mm technicolor print of the film, which he screens regularly and is involved in its restoration.

Stewart’s performance in that film is an ultimate performance, as he realizes in the last 15 minutes of the picture, that gesture of his, as he loses her for the second time. You know, it is just an extraordinary thing.

Any cinephiles, film geek or critic will tell you when you’re watching a Martin Scorsese film, his films are always filmed with various references from the Golden Age of Hollywood. There are a number of influences on this film, Shock Corridor, Crossfire, Laura, I Walked With A Zombie, Out Of The Past, Let There Be Light and The Battle. but Scorsese never lets his influences take over the film.

Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor can only be conjured as a mantra because Shock Corridor is a classic work of art. It comes for the unique experience of Sam Fuller. There is always an element of Shock Corridor hovering over the picture, but never specifically because it’s in me, so it’s a part of me.

Shutter Island is a film that is so full of life, it’s truly like watching masters at work. The use of the steadicam, tracking shots, close-ups etc are used to full effect, to enhance the overall visual impact of the film. His boyish enthusiasm directing this film is so infectious and we are swept along for a very complex ride, giving no easy solutions, and introducing complex characters that do not give way to general conventions. He is the gatekeeper to mature and intelligent film making.

If you have not seen any of Martin Scorsese’s films, then shame on you. But if you want to start, Shutter Island, is a great introduction to the immense Scorsese back catalogue and will show you want it takes to make a film great.

Check out our interview with Leonardo DiCaprio where he talks about his acting career and working with the great Scorsese.

http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/screencrave/~3/ZMmhNqN2Sko/

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Categories: CREW, INTERVIEWS

Interview – Quentin Tarantino on His Movie Influences

February 16, 2010 Leave a comment

To hear Tarantino tell it, it was the time he spent watching old World War II movies that gave him the confidence to embark on “Inglourious Basterds.” “It wasn’t that I needed permission,” he explains. “But what really struck me was that these were films made by directors who’d had to flee their country because of Hitler, and yet the movies they made weren’t all terror or horror. In fact, while they definitely showed the Nazis and their cruelty, they were adventure films, whether you’re talking about ‘Hangmen Also Die’ or ‘Reunion in France’ or ‘To Be or Not to Be’ or ‘O.S.S.,’ an Alan Ladd film that’s like a prequel to ‘The Good Shepherd.’ 

“They were fun and thrilling and exciting and, most amazingly, they had a lot of comedy in them, which really made an impact on me. I mean, for every movie with a sadistic Nazi, there’s one with a Nazi who’s more of a buffoon or a figure of ridicule.”

Tarantino says he loved listening to the dialogue–what he calls the “great ’40s turns of phrases”–that permeated the films. “The slang is really cool,” he says. “People were always calling each other ‘killer dillers,’ which I kept trying to work into ‘Basterds,’ though I never found a place for it. But that’s why you watch the movie from a period–you want to hear how people really talked.”

OperationAmsterdam

Tarantino essentially set up a screening series of relevant films for most of his actors. For Melanie Laurent, who plays Shosanna Dreyfus, Tarantino says: “I wanted her to pretty much watch every movie about people fighting behind enemy lines. The first movie I always had in mind was ‘Operation Amsterdam’ with Peter Finch and Eva Bartok, even though Shosannah became a very different sort of character in our film.”

Tarantino had Mike Myers, who plays Ed Fenech, watch a lot of old ’40s films with Alan Napier, who often played opposite George Sanders (and ended up being immortalized as Alfred in the “Batman” TV series). “Mike would watch the movies and then ask me, ‘You want me to do that?’–meaning Alan Napier–and I’d say, ‘Yeah, do that.’ ”  

Tarantino envisioned Michael Fassbender, who plays Archie Hicox, as a George Sanders type of smoothie. “So I had him watch all the old ‘The Saint’ movies with Sanders, just to soak up his highly articulated speech and his woody manner.” 

For Diane Kruger, who plays Bridget Von Hammersmark, a sultry double agent, Tarantino steeped her in the career of Ilona Massey, a now-forgotten Hungarian singer who was brought to Hollywood when the studios were raiding Hungary and Poland for Marlena Dietrich knockoffs. Tarantino had Kruger watch Massey’s “International Lady,” a ’40s-era spy film, where it turned out that Massey wore pretty much the same outfit Tarantino’s costume designer had made up for Kruger.

“That’s an example of where I didn’t want Diane to just be Dietrich. But with my characters, I really need to know their history, so I had to figure out Bridget’s whole filmography. So in my mind, I decided that Universal had come to Bridget–the way the studios had done to Massey–and offered her a contract, but she was savvy enough to know that if she went to Universal and she didn’t hit right away, she’d be stuck doing Frankenstein movies, which is exactly like Ilona Massey’s real career!”

Basterds1

It begins to feel a little bit like a hall of mirrors but this is how Tarantino’s imagination really works, feeding off his fantasies inspired by his favorite old movies. One day, on the “Basterds” set, he was stymied by how to shoot part of the film’s pivotal basement tavern scene. “I thought what we’d done was kinda boring, so at the end of the day, I said, ‘Let’s do the scene like Josef von Sternberg would’ve done it.’ “

It turns out Tarantino had only recently fallen in love with Von Sternberg, in part because Tarantino had never been a Dietrich fan. But after he saw one Von Sternberg film, he couldn’t stop. The director’s seductive, opulent style began to permeate Tarantino’s imagination.

“So there I was on the set, doing this tracking shot, sweeping past all the bottles on the bar, as my characters came in to sit down and everything started popping again,” Tarantino says, his voice crackling with enthusiasm. “It was great. It was the kind of luxurious camera move that I imagined Von Sternberg would’ve done, except now I was behind the camera. I figured, if I’m gonna shoot actresses in an exquisite ’40s style, who better to look to for inspiration?”    

Photo of Quentin Tarantino by Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times

Scene from “Inglourious Basterds” by Francois Duhamel / The Weinstein Co.

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Categories: CREW, INTERVIEWS

Interview – Director of 'The Wolfman' Joe Johnston

February 10, 2010 Leave a comment

‘Wolfman’ was a monster project, but director Joe Johnston wasn’t scared.

Replacement director Joe Johnston

  • By Geoff Boucher >>>

    February 10, 2010

    Forget silver bullets, blooming wolf’s bane and full-moon fever — the real curse of “The Wolfman” was all the hard luck that the Universal Pictures release had to claw through to reach the screen Friday.

    The old-school monster revival, which stars Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins, arrives after enduring a late change in director, three release-date postponements and a major reworking in the edit bay. The strange thing, though, at least according to director Joe Johnston, is that somehow the film underwent a startling metamorphosis in the final cut.

    “I think it’s turned into a film that is much, much better than the studio or probably anyone else expected,” the filmmaker said while sitting down for lunch at a Beverly Hills hotel. A few minutes later, though, he sounded less certain: “Sometimes you’re too close to something and after a period of time you just can’t really see it.”

    Johnston, whose past credits include “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” and “Jurassic Park 3,” was brought onto the project in February 2008 — just three weeks before principal photography was set to start in England and only three days after the previous director, Mark Romanek (“One Hour Photo”), left the production amid a nasty budget conflict with Universal executives who were adamant that the movie stay at $100 million.

    Johnston, a Texan by birth and an industry veteran with a reputation for candor, explained, with a shrug, that he was brought aboard the reeling production “because I could shoot the movie on budget in a certain number of days.”

    He chuckled when asked if that feat was like jumping on a moving train. “The train, at that point, wasn’t moving at all. It was stopped on the tracks. I needed to get it moving and then change directions.”

    A conductor with a steady hand can only do so much, though, and the film was yanked off this past November’s release schedule when studio chiefs decided they wanted more (and better) visual effects. Some 200 visual-effects scenes were added and the extra shooting time and necessary computer labor pushed the budget closer to $120 million.

    On top of that, Oscar-winning film editor Walter Murch was brought in late in the game to replace editor Dennis Virkler and to re-cut the entire movie. From the outside, the move looked like a salvage effort but Johnston spoke about it in the breezy terms of a student picking up new lessons.

    “I sort of rediscovered what the movie was all about with Walter,” Johnston said. “He wrote the book, literally, on film editing [“In the Blink of an Eye”]. Walter believes in trying things that are a little unorthodox. If there’s a scene that you, as a director, know is central to the film and that you can’t live without, he’ll say, ‘Let’s cut that out.’ A film at that point is a liquid medium and it’s amazing how the loss of one shot or a piece of one shot will change an entire film. . . . With Walter, it was a good experience for me.”

    Johnston didn’t laugh, wink, wince or cry as he said that, which will surprise many Hollywood observers who have followed “The Wolfman” and its travails. This is a film where even the composer changed as Paul Haslinger replaced ubiquitous spook-maestro Danny Elfman a few months ago.

    Johnston also points out that, within days of taking on the director’s job, he flew to England and met with Hopkins for a pleasant drink — at which time the actor casually announced that he would be leaving the cast. Johnston coaxed him back by promising to re-insert several scenes that Romanek had trimmed. Those scenes didn’t make the final cut, but Hopkins isn’t complaining now.

    “I don’t to want to go into the politics of it because I kept well out of it,” Hopkins said. “But there was a lot of pressure on Johnston by the studio and one day he even said to me, ‘They’ve asked me to direct it and now they need to let me direct it.’ He was very even-tempered. He just rolled with the punches. I don’t know how he kept his patience. I told him, ‘Joe, you’re a saint. I don’t know how you don’t just decapitate people.’ “

    Interesting choice of words. There are more than a few heads that get lopped off in the film (“It’s sort of his signature move,” Johnston proudly said of his feral title character), and it will be a bit jolting to family and friends of Johnston whose previous movies included “Hidalgo” and “Jumanji.” Asked about the disconnect, he said that, oddly, this horror film reminded him of the theme-informed escapism of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”

    “In the same way that my first film appeals to kids with this notion of being shrunk, thrown away by their parents and lost in their own backyard, there’s something appealing in this one for adults,” Johnston said. “This is the first R-rated movie I’ve made. And I was committed to making the blood and violence be organic. I didn’t want it overlayed on the movie, which I feel happens with a lot of movies. The main character, Lawrence Talbot, is an extreme case but I think we all have that potential, we all have a dark side within us, a beast waiting for release.”

    The film is a remake of the 1941 classic “The Wolf Man,” which made a star out of Lon Chaney Jr. in his signature role as Lawrence Talbot, an ill-fated Everyman who is bitten by a cursed beast in the English countryside and becomes a supernatural killer.

    This time, Del Toro is in the Talbot role while Hopkins plays his father, Sir John, who is a more central character in the story by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self. Emily Blunt is on board, as is Hugo Weaving, who plays a policeman.

    Johnston was so struck by Weaving’s performance that he tore out the script page with his death scene; the movie now keeps Weaving in play for a sequel. Johnston looked conflicted when asked if he would consider coming back for another “Wolfman.” “That depends on the story,” he said. “And a lot of things.”

    A sequel may be mad optimism for a film that originally was supposed to be here in November 2008. Still, Hopkins said that when the theater lights finally darken for “The Wolfman” this week, good things may happen.

    “I saw the final result and it was terrific,” Hopkins said. “There was a bit of a scrum to get it going, but it’s turned out really well.”

    All will become clear in short order. Moviegoers will ultimately decide whether this latest Universal creature-feature is more like the studio’s forgettable “Van Helsing” or a throwback success like the “Mummy” trilogy, which racked up $1.25 billion worldwide. Unlike “The Mummy” films, though, this film is deadly serious — it’s closer in ethos, perhaps, to 1994’s “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Johnston isn’t making predictions.

    “The struggle of making a film for any studio is the fact that the producers and the studio have an idea of what the movie should be, but that is especially the case when the director is being replaced three weeks before principal photography,” Johnston said. “The challenge for me was to make sure that was my version of ‘The Wolfman.’ And I’ve done that. I think.”


    geoff.boucher@latimes.com

  • Copyright © 2010, The Los Angeles Times

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    Categories: CREW, INTERVIEWS

    Interview – Stunt Coordinator Garrett Warren took his lumps on 'Avatar'

    December 29, 2009 Leave a comment
    December 28, 2009 | 10:35 am

    Still recovering from “Avatar“? Garrett Warren can relate. The stunt coordinator for the film is now a self-proclaimed expert in the tricky art of banshee riding, and he’s also an in-demand man in Hollywood with credits on some of the biggest upcoming releases, including “Iron Man 2,” “The Adventures of Tintin” and “Alice in Wonderland.” Our Yvonne Villarreal caught up with the 21st century fall guy to get the lowdown on his rough-and-tumble trade.

    Garrett Warren

    YV: How did you get involved in “Avatar“? It’s a pretty huge deal, right?

    GW: You have no idea. Where do I start? I remember I met Jim [Cameron] on “Beowulf” back in 2005, when he was starting this whole idea. After “Beowulf” was finished, I had a chance to pitch some ideas to him. I got a whole bunch of stunt guys together, and I rented a sound stage and a whole lot of equipment, and I pretty much just threw a whole bunch of ideas at him. Even though I hadn’t had a chance to read the whole script, I had a chance to find out some ideas of the movie.  I threw my best guess out there, let’s say, of some of the things that were going on. He’d look at it and say, “Yeah, this is good. This is good. This is no good. This is no good.” But in the end, he finally said, “This is good stuff. It’d be great to have you on board.” That’s how I got on the project.

    YV: Talk about your experience working on the film.

    GW: When you read the script, you’re dumbfounded. I thought it was incredible. I didn’t know exactly where to start. So I figured I’d start from Page 1 [laughs]. He left it up to me to try and design a new way to shoot zero-G weightlessness in outer space — which is how the movie starts. We wound up getting an apparatus which is called a spinning ring, and we wound up using it with different kinds of rigging techniques — sometimes flying it by wires, sometimes sticking it on the end of a metal arm like a yolk and a parallelogram — so that we were able to really create what would look like weightlessness in outer space. It’s somewhat of a difficult process to go through to actually get on that Vomit Comet. We first ended up doing that zero-G plane that flies out of Burbank. Also, you only have a certain amount of time where you can film it, and you only have a certain amount of space. Jim didn’t want to be limited with his space because in the movie you see there are hundreds of people on this huge space shuttle, and you want to be able to have as realistic of a set as possible and have all these people floating weightless on your set so … it’s the first time it’s ever been done and performed this way. That’s why it was so groundbreaking. We had this ring that someone could move 360 degrees in all directions. We could fly them up, down and around — that’s what helped give us that feel of what weightlessness in outer space looks like.

    YV: So was there a lot of collaboration between you and Jim?

    GW: That was probably one of the best things about the movie. I’ve worked with an awful lot of directors.  I worked on  “Alice in Wonderland,” “A Christmas Carol,” “Beowulf” … they’re all very good. One thing is for certain, Jim has a definite idea in his mind, and a lot of times he’ll sit there and say, “I definitely want it to look like this. I want this kind of movement.” But he’ll also say, “Play around with it, and give me some of your ideas.” Anytime we did any action, it would start with his concept, then it would go to us rehearsing the concept and coming up with other ways of doing it — we had variations of the concept — then we’d go back to him, and he would decide what he liked and didn’t like.

    Avatar bow and arrow

     

     YV: Looking back, what was your favorite stunt sequence?

    GW: That’s really difficult. There are so many that were really good sequences. I have to admit one of my favorite stunts was, at one point, our two heroes  Neytiri [Zoe Saldana] and Jake [Sam Worthington], jump off of this tree branch probably about 300 feet in the air. They plummet to the ground and they use these huge, oversized leaves to help slow their speed down so they don’t kill themselves when they hit the ground. Well, when they first came to me and said, “How are we going to do this?”  I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I said we could create — because we had limited height in what we called the volume (Jim set up this big, huge motion capture volume on this stage), our height was only 12 feet tall. So I had to make someone fall hundreds of feet in a 12-foot distance. So we used a technique called “stitching.” We would make someone fall a certain distance and then figure out what his last position was and start him at that position at the top of the fall again and keep on doing it X amount of times. … We wound up, actually, in the end deciding that we needed more distance and wound up going  to another building that was 80 feet tall and creating what we called the “elevator shaft.” The “elevator shaft” was this huge, tall structure where we would put these oversized pieces of PVC tubing to represent the structures of the leaves so that when our stunt people would fall down and grab them, it would be the exact same thing as falling down and grabbing a leaf.  It was probably my most favorite part of the movie. There’s also the final fight scene in that movie that — to me — is not only epic but one of the better fight scenes that I’ve done in my lifetime.

    James Cameron on Avatar set

    YV: And what was it like to work with Cameron on his big follow-up to “Titanic”?

    GW: There’s one part in my experience with Jim that was typical of what it was like to work with him. At one point, Jake needs to jump on the back of this creature and try to stab Quaritch  [portrayed by Stephen Lang]. We worked out how he was going to climb on the side of it and stab him, but Jim came over and was like, “No, you can’t stand there. There’s a big huge exhaust and you could burn yourself.” And I kept going, “OK. I never knew that.” And he would be like, “Yeah, because I made it up. It has to have an exhaust somewhere, right? This is probably the most logical place an exhaust should go, right?” I’d say, “Yeah, I agree with you.” So he’d be like, “Well, we’ll put it here so you can’t stand here.” That was pretty much the way the whole movie went. It was flying on banshees. Flying on leaping objects. Riding what’s called a Thanator. All these
    creatures were in Jim’s mind.

    YV: So he was good at expressing what was in his imagination?

    GW: You pretty much have to try and fail. He gives you his ideas; he gives you some drawings and some animations and he says, “This is what it’s going to look like. I’m not really sure where we’ll find a place to put your foot, let’s say, when we’re doing the banshee. We’ll have to find a place.” He would talk to us about this clavicle that they would have which is right by where they would breathe. And we’re all looking at each other like “This is ridiculous.” I mean, this is a made-up creature, but in Jim’s mind it was absolutely real. He’d be like, “It breathes right here, it has four eyes, a clavicle right here.” He knew the anatomy of these creatures. It was crazy and so fun. He knew what blood type the creature was. He knew them like the back of his hand. And now so do we. I’m now one of the foremost experts on flying a banshee. We would have brainstorming sessions that would consist of Jim and a Sharpie and a piece of paper. Sometimes he’d have a model or drawing.  Sometimes he’d sit there … we’d have a whole lot of equipment — stuff we actually invented and came up with while we were doing this movie — and he’d look at the stuff and say, “It’s sort of like that piece of equipment over there combined with that piece of equipment.” We’d go and grab it and try and secure it as safely as possible, and then I would get on it and he’d say, “Where do you find your balance at?” And then he’d get on. A lot of times, people would come over and say, “How long is this going to take?” and Jim would say, “It could take three minutes or it could take three hours.” That was my favorite part. He was creating and inventing all of these new things. The equipment we came up with was never going to be used in this way again. I never would have imagined we could simulate this stuff with just some speed rails, pads and wood to create these flying machines. But we did. If there is one thing I could tell you, Jim is dangerous with tape. He can create a skyscraper, anything he wants with some duct tape.

    YV: What’s it like for you now that people can finally see the vision realized on the screen?

    Iron Man 2 Poster

    GW: I can’t tell you how fun it is to watch everyone’s faces as they gasp or cringe in their seats or clap and stand up and cheer when all of a sudden Neytiri pulls out that arrow for the last time. You will not get a better feeling as a stunt coordinator as you do when you’re sitting in the audience and you see the people go through those emotions. It’s been a huge part of my life. It was like a family member.  It will always be a part of me. I worked on it for four years.  I would liken it to “Star Wars” — I think it has that impact, if not stronger in our day and age. It has such a great message. I’ve worked on so many movies — whether it be “A Christmas Carol” or “Iron Man 2” — this movie is unlike anything else out there. All of those movies are great movies. But this movie … does a lot more than take you through an entertaining experience; it somewhat alters your consciousness. It alters your being. It makes you want to go home and take care of the planet. I’ll never be able to fathom what it’s like to live on that planet [Pandora], but I came as close as possible. You can expect something you never ever could dream up in your whole life. Jim does such a good job of defining every little detail and letting you become involved that you feel  you’re a part of the experience.

    VY: You mentioned you worked on “Alice in Wonderland.” Tell me a little bit about what audiences can expect?

    GW: Oh, well that’s where I get in trouble. Wait until you guys see it. It will blow your mind away. It’s amazing. The trailers don’t do it justice. It’s that good. It’s one of my most favorite movies. You’ll see something that was only in your imagination come to life. Only your dream state and yet so tangible that you feel that maybe you did go through the experience.

    YV: Can you talk about the technology used?

    GW: We used some motion capture in “Alice in Wonderland,” but we wound up using a Moven [MVN] suit — that suit transfers information from the user to the computer via Bluetooth.  All the reflective dots that you see on people in, say, “Avatar” … those are by cameras all around the performer.  Well, this suit actually doesn’t have cameras. It actually has little gyroscopes on each joint and that, when it moves, transfers all that movement into the computer. It was completely different than what I was used to on “Avatar.” The other thing that Jim did in “Avatar” that I was incredibly impressed with was when we captured the facial expressions … he created this little camera boom that will not only capture the facial expressions but was also very safe. … We would be running through tree branches and vines and that lens: If that boom on your head got caught on any branches, it would put your neck out of place, and that would make an actor or actress have to take some time off. We didn’t know how we would do it. He came up with this breakaway boom. If it was to get caught, it would just snap off to the side of the performer. It wouldn’t snap his neck off. 

    Alice

     

    YV: And you worked on “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.” What can you reveal about that?

    GW: Tintin was an amazing movie to work on as well.  Once again, I’m not allowed to say anything on that movie either. But I can tell you that it’s an incredible story. It’s not just a great experience, it’s an incredible story.  Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg — two incredible storytellers. And the acting is superb.

    Tintin walking

    YV: On “Iron Man 2,” you’re Mickey Rourke’s stunt double?

    GW: Again … I can’t say too much. I learned my lesson. You don’t get better acting than say Robert Downey Jr. and Mickey Rourke. You don’t. These guys work together so well. It’s such a fun and exciting movie. You can’t go away without feeling good.

    YV: And there’s lots of whipping, right?

    GW: Lots and lots of whipping.

    YV: I think I know what your answer will be, but I’m going to ask it anyway: What can you tell me about “The Losers”?

    GW: That has a special place in my heart, actually. Zoe Saldana was the one who got me on that movie. We were shooting “Avatar,” at the time and she came to me saying there was a movie she wanted to be in called “The Losers.”  The people weren’t sure whether or not she could handle action. She felt so heartbroken because they weren’t able to see the stuff she was doing on “Avatar.”  It was all top secret. She was such an action machine, but nobody knew it yet. I suggested we
    take a weekend to put together a video to help get her the job. I helped shoot this promotional video for her to show that she could do action.  We had her shooting guns, wielding swords, knife work. … It was unbelievable. She was unreal. She got the part. And then she suggested they use me as their stunt coordinator.  I actually was on our re-shoots of “Avatar” when I got the call from Sylvain White, the director for “The Losers.” He wanted it to be not only like the comic book but somewhat more visceral. It’s an amazingly real yet superbly comical look at these black ops special agents. And I loved the dichotomy. He was thinking the “Bourne” films and “24,” and yet he wanted to have comedy involved.  We met. And he hired me. It’s all live action, 100%.  There is some amazing action in that movie. You will be blown away. People will think, “Wow, that had to be CG.” No. Nothing was CG. We did everything. For real. I dropped actors and actresses on wires. I threw people through doors and windows. And Zoe … she’s a wrecking machine. I can’t tell you how much fun it was to work on that movie.

    YV: You seem to be the expert on blending motion capture with live action. 

    Christmas Carol Poster

    GW: I enjoy blending the two. It’s such an open field and your imagination is your tool. The sky’s the limit. It’s like dropping a hundred feet onto leaves. How are you going to do that in a 12-foot building? It’s my job to come up with that solution, and I love that. It’s really easy for me to get a guy out there a hundred feet, put him on a wire and just drop him and hopefully it works out perfectly. Whereas, when you’re in a computer stage with height limitations, it takes a lot more work. It takes weeks of rehearsal and preparation. It’s very challenging. And I love it. I love being challenged. I love being able to bring out the emotion and reality of this unknown fantasy.

    YV: So how difficult is it to capture the essence of movement and emotion in the motion capture world?

    GW: Fortunately, for me, the computer does a really good job of capturing the body. When we first started off doing the movement in “Avatar,” Jim came to me and was like, “I want them to move like two-legged cat-like creatures that can jump like lemurs,” I was like, “Wow.” I did a whole audition process. It took me an awfully long time — this was even before we started filming. I went through people of Cirque de Soleil. I went through dancers.  I went through gymnasts. Through stunt professionals. I went through every person out there that might have some movement I wanted to see. I went through martial artists. I wanted to see any type of movement that was not only interesting but that could lend itself to this movie. In a live-action movie, we’d be able to get a person, paint them blue, and when they’d move, you’d say, “Oh, that’s cool.” When you’re on a motion-capture stage, you’re not confined by height or weight. The sky’s the limit. You can have a short person or a tall person performing the movements. A person of any ethnicity, any hair color — as long as there’s movement. That’s the great thing about motion capture, you can get the best movement for that scene instead of having to be confined by what will match the actor or the actress.

    The losers

    YV: Does it make a difference for you in how you coordinate everything?

    GW: “Beowulf” was my induction into this world. It was somewhat difficult at first because it’s not like you can just have a guy out there who gets hit in the face. I had to account for the space around the person. Like, say, Jim Carrey when he’s playing the Ghost of Christmas Present and he’s this tall, huge monstrous creature versus this normal-sized person. We don’t just get out there and put a ball. We actually put him in that spot and figure out how we’ll make the performance match the scene. We try and put that actor into that height or that dimension, and that’s why it’s difficult. And fun. Jim Cameron, especially, would not allow that to happen. We have a lot of talented actors out there who can pretend they’re looking at a creature. Jim didn’t want that. He wanted to get that creature. To get the actor to really feel what it would be like in that circumstance. When you see an Avatar looking down at a normal human being, we actually had Zoe or Sam interacting with a child. We tried to mimic that situation. That’s what was so good about it. The reason why this movie is so good, every scene, every frame, every movement has that acting or that drama. Nothing was taken for granted. It’s a great film. I hope everyone gets a chance to see it.

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    Interview – Joe Letteri, FX Supervisor on 'Avatar,' takes you inside the Tech

    December 24, 2009 Leave a comment
    Quaritch in his EVA suit

    Stephen Lang plays Col. Miles Quaritch, the military contractor who finds himself pitted against the Na’vi in James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ 

    Credit: 20th Century Fox/WETA

    Last Friday, I got up incredibly early to go watch a bunch of four-year-olds in bathrobes sing some Christmas songs and carry around a rubber doll they called Jesus. And as low-tech as it was, it was absolutely thrilling to each and every parent in the room.  Toshi may not have remembered all the words to “Away In A Manger,” but he bellowed every one he did remember with all the heart any parent could ask.  As soon as that was done, I was out the door and in my car and on my way to Burbank, where I sat down for coffee with Joe Letteri, a guy I’ve been waiting to meet for a while now, so we could talk about the absolute opposite of that Christmas pageant, the mega-expensive and cutting-edge technological marvel of “Avatar”.

    As FX supervisor for WETA Digital on “Avatar,” he’s been buried in secrecy for the last five or six years, and that whole time, I’ve been itching to sit down and ask him about the work he’s been doing.  Since Letteri was also a key player on “Lord Of The Rings,” one might argue that there are few people in the business better suited to talk about world building on a certain scale right now.  As soon as we had our drinks, we sat down outside and I turned on my tape recorder:

    DREW MCWEENY:  I grew up watching these films.  Like I said, I was seven when “Star Wars” came out.

    JOE LETTERI:  Yeah, yeah.

    DM:  It rewired me.  I staggered out of the theatre and said to my parents, “All right. Who made that?”  We looked at the poster and they were like, “Okay, written and directed by George Lucas”.  That was the first movie where they really did the big behind-the-scenes thing, where for a year we saw specials and magazines and it kind of lit the fire for a lot of kids my age.  It basically said to us, “This is a craft. You can learn to do this.  It’s not something that’s magic or impossible.”

    JL:  Well, it looked like people climbed into space ships and took off. That was the thing.

    DM:  Right.  It’s like, “Whoa, that’s what I want to do,” you know?  At first, it was “I want to climb into a space ship and fly somewhere,” but it quickly became, “I want to make movies that take you to other planets that don’t exist.”  And George made it look like that.  This is the first time in awhile where I have… you stop thinking about the process at all when you’re watching, and I know that was a goal.  I know that that was something that as far back as… I think I read the scriptment in ’97..?

    JL:  Yeah, that early treatment, yeah, yeah.

    DM:  At that point it was like, “He’s nuts.  There’s no way.”  I don’t even know how you begin.  At what point did you seriously begin the process of, “Okay, this is really happening.  We’re really going to have to pull it off now and how do we marshall the forces?”

    JL:  So okay, what happened was we finished “Lord of the Rings,” right? We came up here and we had this big night at the Oscars where we got that sweep that night for “Return of the King”.  The next day, Peter calls and says, “Jim called.  He’s got his new 3D camera system.  You’ve got to go take a look at it.”  I said sure.  So we started talking to Jim about 3D movies because Peter wanted to shoot “Kong” in 3D, and we talked to Jim about using his camera. “Where is it?  You know… is it production ready?” He talked about the documentaries he’d shot, but obviously for a big film like “Kong,” we’d have to have multiple package ready.  He said it was probably not going to be ready in time, so Peter just said, “Okay, we’ll shoot ‘Kong’ in 2D,” but he really wanted to do it in 3D.  Then we just stayed in touch, and as we were working on “Kong,” we talked about what we were doing, and how we were going to have a lead character with no dialogue who’s still got to be able to carry scenes and play opposite Naomi, and we were still trying to figure all that stuff out.  We told Jim we were planning to do a facial motion capture, which was new because Gollum we did without any motion capture for the face.

    DM:  I think a lot of people think that Gollum was all motion capture, but a lot of it was key frame animation, right?

    JL:  Most of it was key frame.

    DM:  Yeah.

    JL:  Andy was motion captured for sure, but a lot of it, he was done on-set, and so it was matched to what he did on-set so he could be put in place.  For the stuff where you see him photographed with everybody, there’s no motion capture.

    DM:  Right.

    JL:  You couldn’t do on-set motion capture at the time.  We did it, I think, in two scenes in “Return of the King,” but for “The Two Towers,” there was none.  It was all key frame.  We did have a motion capture set and we did work with Andy to mo-cap some of the scenes, so I shouldn’t say it was all key frame.  Some of it was motion capture, because we were able to look at the raw data you mo-cap and use that as animation reference, but you can put him into it in a few moments, so there was… maybe I’d say 25% was motion capture.  That went up a little bit higher on “Kong,” but not much.  Maybe, you know, 50% or so. And we upped it more on this one, but it’s certainly still not 100%.  That whole idea that motion capture is an automatic process… it’s an automated process for sure, but it’s not automatic.  It takes artists still looking at every frame of this stuff and saying, “Is it right? Is it right?”  You know, we build systems that are smart so you can say, “Okay, that shape on the mouth in that particular bit of dialogue is wrong. Let’s fix it.”  Then you can put it into the system so the next time we see that shape on the actor’s face, you know what that’s supposed to be and we get it right.

    DM:  Oh, okay.

    JL:  It still requires artist’s intervention because as much as
    we try to understand what’s going on with the human face, there’s still just a lot of unknowns.  Even the way the muscles are laid out.  They’re not even known to… you know, we’re working with a lot of biologists and bio-engineers on this stuff. We’re really just starting to crack how that is.  And even so three years ago when we started, it was less known then.  So what we do is we take it from the outside in. There’s a system we use called FACS.  I don’t know if you’re familiar with that at all.

    DM:  I’ve heard of it.

    JL:  Facial Action Coding System.  It was developed by a guy, Paul Ekman, at UCFF years ago to try to figure out if people are lying.  What causes people to make a split second decision?  Like why would a policeman pull a gun on a suspect and decide to shoot him or not shoot him?  What kind of clues tell these guys, who are really good, what it is when they know somebody’s bluffing or not?  And what he did is he broke down the face into what he called action units. And so he broke down every part of the face and you can see what the response is for any particular emotion…. any set of muscles that work together… and that’s what we did for Gollum.  We broke it down that way and we actually used the same kind of tricks.  It was really subtle one-frame self-expressions, like when he’s lying, that you can just see if you frame-by-frame it. You can see that that’s what’s going on.  That’s what happens in the real world but it just goes by so fast that you don’t really ever notice it.

    DM:  The moment where Gollum came to life, as I was watching “Two Towers,” was the moment where he has his schizophrenic conversation.  That’s where I went, “Alright, he’s alive.  That’s real.  I buy it.  I’m totally into the character.”

    JL:  Yeah, yeah.

    DM:  And I think with “Kong”, the jump there was that even though he was totally non-verbal, we still understood everything Kong was thinking and doing.

    JL:  Exactly.

    DM:  Which is beautiful and it really, to me, was a performance.

    JL:  Oh, yeah.

    DM:  The work between the animators and Andy and the way it came together, it felt effortless… like Kong lived.  I really feel like you guys have taken it to the next level, though, this time.  Different actors have… I’ve spoken with two guys who really advocated for the process after they went through it.  Both did it for Zemenkis, but they… Gary Oldman and John Malkovich, guys who you think would be really opposed to this kind of technology and things like that… but it’s the exact opposite.  They were both like, “In a heartbeat.  I loved it.  I loved the freedom of it and I loved the feeling that I can play anything.”  For Oldman, the idea that he played Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit blew his mind.  And he loved it.  So I think that actors, as they embrace it, it seems like a different skill-set.  Like you kind of have to relearn some of the tools to really be effective in performance capture?

    JL:  You kind of do, but it’s interesting talking to some of the actors I’ve spoken with about it.  You do try to get everyone’s take on, “How’s it working for you? Is there anything we else we kind of need to do?”  And they’re saying it actually works for us because it’s like, to them, it’s like the old days of coming up and learning the craft. You didn’t have a set, you just had an empty room and a bunch of people just acting and that was it, you know?  Before you got famous or got a job, you didn’t have costumes. You didn’t have anything.  You were just acting.  So to them acting in a room just strips it down.  And it’s actually great watching these performances because it’s like there’s nobody in the room and you’re just watching these dramas, you know?  It’s really cool.

    DM:  I have to say the performance in this movie that I think is the jump, the one where you look at it, and you’re like… she just looks alive…

    JL:  Zoe.

    DM:  Right.  What Zoe does in this movie is unbelievable.

    JL:  Yeah, yeah.

    DM:  Everybody’s very good.  Joel David Moore seems to really take to it.  Sigourney’s amazing.  And I love how much it’s Sigourney to the point where the audience… the first time she walks out, they laugh because they’re like, “Holy crap.  It’s Sigourney Weaver… and she’s blue!”

    JL:  Yeah, yeah.

    DM:  There’s something about the way Zoe does it and about the way she slips into Naytiri’s skin that is other worldly.  You really buy that she’s not human and that the physiology works differently, and she makes it really beautiful.  As you guys are watching these performances come together, do you have moments where you go, “Wow, I didn’t think it was going to look like that”?

    JL:  There’s a few of them, but you know really what happens is… like, you’re approaching this stuff incrementally to the point where… the problem with CG is until everything is right, it just doesn’t look right at all.  So it’s almost like doing a puzzle where you’ve got this thing and you’re putting it all in and you’re layering it and you get it piece by piece and it’s in there and the final piece is there and you look at it and say it’s done… great.  Okay, onto the next one, you know?  So for me, it wasn’t until the premiere that I got to sit back and actually just watch it, which is great.

    DM:  Peter was talking about one of the things that he’s very proud of with WETA, and one of the things he says is proprietary and that he feels like you do better than anybody in the business… it’s the eyes.  To me, that is the key to your characters. So much of it comes down to if the eyes work, and the design of the eyes seems to be cheated a bit so that you have that much more surface space to
    play.

    JL:  It’s cheated hugely.  It’s actually a very similar idea to what we had with Gollum, which is one of the things we talked about with Jim, you know, getting back to sort of the early days.  These eyes are almost 3 times as big proportionate as human eyes. You just don’t realize that when you’re looking at them.  We did the same thing with Gollum.  His eyes were like 2-1/2 times human size, and you just don’t realize it because you’re so used to wanting to see a face that you really have to exaggerate it to make it work.  But the Na’vi also had the sort of cat-eye design so there was a little bit of that while still trying to make them look human, so again, we worked on those eyes for a long time, from the initial design to first animating them and showing Jim, “Okay, here’s what your design was, but this isn’t going to exactly work because we need to get his expression,” and, you know, it was just an iterative process for us to figure it out and then to talk through with him.  “Okay, where do you want to go with it?”  Because you’re… obviously, the easiest thing to do is take it all the way back to human but that’s not what you want to do, so you’re always just trying to find what’s the balance between getting this character that you want but still getting all the human expression that you need.

    DM:  What is it about the WETA eyes?  Obviously it’s not just a software thing, but it’s something in how you design or something in how you execute them that I think takes it that extra distance from an effect to something that reacts the way we believe an eye should.  How much of that was a process of you guys having to go through sort of trial and error before you really looked at something and went, “Okay, that works. That sells it.”

    JL:  It wasn’t exactly trial and error, but it was a process where we knew what we were going towards and it was getting all the pieces to work.  You break it down.  For example, there’s the… you’re trying to capture the performance of the eyes.  We have an optical system that will track the eyes separately from the rest of the face to figure out what they’re doing.  Then the animators have to look at that and just say, “That’s great.  Does that really come through or not?”  And if not, you’re doing animation on top of it to get the detailed movement of the eyes, the glances working the right way, things that are off just because… okay, what Sam did was this but because Jake’s character’s eyes are this far apart it makes him look a little bit like he’s looking in the wrong direction… whatever.  There’s lots of detail that you go into for every shot just to get the animation going.  You’ve got all the movement of the skin around the eyes and the muscles that contribute to it.  When the eyes move, they have… they influence everything else around it and they’re influenced by everything else around it. So you’ve got all that as far as the creature and muscle side of it goes.  And then you’ve got all the lighting side.  The skin, you know, getting the thinness of the skin to work right, the subsurface… especially with the blue skin. That was tricky, to not really make it look thick because we needed a thin layer of blue and we still needed a blood layer underneath it, so for the whole skin getting that translucency was much trickier because of the color.  And then the eyes themselves because they have a certain translucent quality to them. They also have this kind of caustic quality to them because they’re lenses and they focus light and that’s a lot of what you see on the eyes… how they focus light. Well, we wanted to do this whole thing on this movie, to really work with global illumination because we wanted everything to be lit in the same world.  The characters, the jungle, everything.  It’s like just lighting… look around you.  It’s like lighting this whole patio and the parking lot beyond it, and the street out front… and everything else.  So we had a whole project going to get that working, but of course that all has to come together in the eyes.  You have to figure out how to gather all that light and focus it into the eyes.  So we knew we needed to do all that but it just took awhile, but once it came together you could see it was working.  And it felt like, “Yeah, okay.  We have it.”

    DM:  When you’re building a world completely as you did with Pandora, where you’re starting from zero and everything, the ecosystem and all the life forms and all the plants and everything has to be built… is it more difficult to do that than what Peter did with “Lord of the Rings” where you’re mixing effects elements and you’re combining locations and things that are built?  Because it almost seems like if it was a completely CG environment you’d have more control and you’d have more freedom to do things.

    JL:  Which is a bad thing.

    DM:  Oh, okay.

    JL:  It is.  Because when you have something, like when you’re putting a character like Gollum next to Elijah, you’ve got your reference right there.  He’s got to look as good as Elijah, performance wise, skin wise, everything.  He’s got to look totally believable. So you’ve got your reference right there to work with. And it just hangs together. When you don’t have that, you can just start from scratch and put him out there, and you can miss the mark and not know you’ve missed it.  But eventually you’re going to see that because it’s just not going to feel real to you, you know?  So you have to keep all this in your head about just trying to figure out what are the pieces that are real and what are the pieces that are not real.  And it would have been really hard to do this movie without the experience of having gone through “Rings,” you know, and then working with Gollum in the plates and then Kong, where it’s the same kind of thing but now we’re building more of the environment around him and then taking the step to just, okay, now we’re building the whole thing.  Because you keep in mind all those things that you learned from doing all those other films on what actually you’re looking for to make it look real and just don’t forget it because you don’t have the reference anymore.

    DM:  Interesting.  The first test they showed me at Lightstorm of the 3D was a couple of years ago, and they showed me some of the stuff they’d done where they retrofitted other films, films that had been shot in 2D.  And the one that really blew my mind, the one where I started to get really excited about the potential of “Avatar,” was “The Two Towers”.   It was a test with Sam and Frodo and Gollum.  And what did it was seeing Sam in the foreground, Frodo in the background, and Gollum between them.  That’s where my brain just went, “Alright, well he’s holding a space.  He’s real, because there he is standing between two real people.”

    JL:  Yeah, yeah.

    DM:  So much of this does take place either in the Na’vi world where it’s all Na’vi or it takes place inside the human buildings, but there are those moments where things cross over.  I think particularly striking is the moment where Neytiri finally meets Jake.

    JL:  The human Jake, yeah, yeah.

    DM:  It’s beautiful, and by that point in the movie, you want to see them together and then you realize how the scale is so different, and it’s a mind boggling moment.  It really sells Neytiri.  I think that’s what does it.  You go, “Oh, well, there she is and there’s Jake and they’re together and wow.”

    JL:  Yeah, yeah.  That was a whole design thing because we talked about this with Jim a lot.  Early on you’ve got, like I said, you’re in the human world.  You see the Avatar. You introduce the size of them in the tank.  You see how long they are.  Then you see them in the ambient room where they’re waking up. You get to see them next to human reference.  Then they run out and they run past a few med-techs, you know? After that, you’re pretty much out in the jungle with them, and at that point we knew that you would just be looking at them as human.  You forget about their size because you’re doing the close-up, you’re doing the 2-shot… whatever.  You’re just going to think about them as human. It’s the exact same thing we went through with the Hobbits.  Once you’re in a scene with just the Hobbits, you never thought about their size because you had no scale reference.  So we knew the movie was going to take that arc and it needed to be established early on, and you needed to bring it home at the end. Not only for scale reference but emotionally.  You really need it to see who he really was.

    DM:  That seems to be the big jump is combining these photo-real characters and humans to an extent that you stop thinking about what’s real and what’s not.  There are moments in “Avatar” where there are human characters who, if I’m not mistaken, have been digitally duplicated.

    JL:  Oh yeah, there were a lot of digital doubles in that movie.

    DM:  That’s fascinating.  I think that’s one of the things that is one of the most unusual effects in the movie because you’re looking for the aliens.  You’re looking for the big things but those digital doubles… that’s a whole different game you guys are having to play.  Can you talk about why you used those, when you used those, and sort of how they were developed?

    JL:  Generally we use digital doubles for stunt-work.  Things that are too dangerous to do otherwise.  Sometimes you use them for things that are too difficult to shoot like those shots of Quaritch fighting Jake at the end in the EVA suit.  Probably half a dozen of those were digital double shots, you know, because you just couldn’t get the right camera angle on them to shoot them.  It all comes down to the same kind of technology, the same idea that we started with with Gollum really.  It’s just what’s happened over the years as Gollum took a year to make and all that time and effort going into one character.  Now you have to do like dozens of characters, so you really have to take what you learned and apply it, and we really learned a lot about skin in an interesting way by doing blue skin because like I said it was really hard.  Blue skin just wants to look like plastic.  It really does because you’re absorbing all the light and you’re not getting any of the red back that tells you it’s flesh.  So we had to come up with another technique to figure out how to let the light go back in and come back out as red because we knew we wanted them to feel fleshy around the eyes and the lips and have red blood and around the hands and everything.  But it really focused our effort, too, on skin to the point where it’s like, “Okay, we’ve got a pretty good idea how to do human skin now.”  Too bad we didn’t have to do much of it, you know?  But we did it for the digital doubles, so we treat everything of a piece.  Whatever you’re doing… for us doing a vehicle or skin, it’s all the math behind it.  All the science behind it is all based on the same thing.

    DM:  How do you create a sense of scale in some of this because, for example, the Home Tree sequence… unavoidably if you watched 9/11 happen, there is that same sense of scale of something coming down.  It is gargantuan and in the theatre it’s not just the sound, it is the imagery and what we’re seeing that really sells the fact that this thing is enormous.  But you are dealing with digital models, so how do you sell that idea of scale?  What are the things that you guys… the signifiers that you use?

    JL:  It’s a real balancing act and it really depends on the object.  Like for example, the Home Tree being a good one… if you’re sort of in close and you look at the bark on it, you expect the bark to be sort of like a tree bark, right?  And that makes sense, but once you’re far away at a distance, if you really had that scale of tree bark, it would be so small that from that distance it would just look like nothing.  You wouldn’t get the tree bark scale.  So what we have to do for something like that, where we know we’re going to use it in multiple scales, is work in multiple levels of detail.  In that case, it looks like tree bark, so when you’re in close you can see what looks like you’d expect, what looks like tree bark, and when you’re farther away it still looks like tree bark.  When you’re even farther away, it still looks like tree bark.  There’s just multiple scales of detail.  We do it with the dressing, the leaves and the foliage and all that sort of thing.  Sometimes we have to play with the size depending on the shot.  When Jake and Naturi are up at the top of the banshee aviary and they walk out and you see them surrounded by all those leaves, you know you have sort of a good size for them to believe that it’s a large tree, but even at that size once you’re down on the ground and those leaves are 1,000 feet in the air, they’re just going to look like little bits of cotton.  Sometimes we just have to play with it for different shots just so you understand what it is you’re looking at, so the tree still looks like a tree.

    You can read the rest of this conversation in part two of the interview. 

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    Categories: CREW, INTERVIEWS