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Diverse Resurgence & Prevalent Strength: The 2013 Tribeca Film Festival – Feature

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Tribeca Film Festival powered up in the notion of a post 9/11 world to create a resurgence in the Downtown area. In its diversity, it has expanded through the East Village and Chelsea. Even in a busy week populated by cigars and an interesting cocktail called Cleopatra’s Needle, the strength of the films as shown on the final two days of the festival highlights strength even as the galas and would be headliners aren’t as prevalent.

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The first film “Mobius” highlights “The Artist” star Jean Dujardin as a Russian operative (French born and raised of course) who is on the trail of a quick numbers girl in Monaco who understands the market. She has insider information that brings her into the crosshairs of a multi-national businessman/criminal (played with detached aplomb by Tim Roth). Initially using its Rivera textured noirishness to great aplomb, it retreats into more darkened corridors. What initially might have hindered in the film with the lead French actress completely changes immediately after she and Dujardin spot each other in a club. Her aggressiveness and intelligence, not to mention beauty perfectly interweave with his care and gentleness (though as the lead operative he has screwed up royally). While slick, the film does lack at times a sense of danger which tends to come and go. Some actors are exceptional while others fail to convey a certain fruition though Roth’s right hand hitman is sufficiently vicious and deliberate without being dumb. The resolution is resoundingly European but tenacious still.

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“The Machine”, an entry in the midnight category, mixes elements of “I Robot”, “Species” and “The Terminator” with a bit of flair on what is certainly a limited budget. With its odes to “Blade Runner”, darkened labs and cold lighting. Toby Stephens, who played the altered North Korean villain in the Bond film “Die Another Day” shows his excellence at subtlety. Unlike “I Robot” which simply tried to introduce ideas and then cover them up with large scale action scenes, there is a bit of time spent on watching the new robots’ reactions to their existence. While it can get overly techie (like with the altered soldiers who when they lose the power of voice after given new implants create their own sub-vocal language), the film does retain its sense of foreboding. Cary Lotz, who at first plays a young scientist who imprints herself on the new cybernetic organism and then the organism itself, plays the sense of the childlike and the murderous quite succinctly, much like the human Cylons in “Battlestar Galactica”. The eventual revolution is expected and the dull silver eye glow in the dark of the altered definitely creates a mood.

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“The Kill Team”, which won the World Documentary Award at the fest, is a very frank and unflattering view of members of a battalion in Afghanistan which began killing civilians for sport and war trophies. The access and frankness of the participants creates an interesting barometer of senses because one wonders if their sentences at times either help or hinder or if a type of nihilistic point of view sets in. The main integration of the doc is with the soldier who, while having knowledge of what was going on, tried to warn his superiors and eventually his father but the whole thing blew up in the media before it could be taken care of internally. What is fascinating at times about the progression here is that it seemed on top of what was going on from the very beginning which makes the idea of it almost too convenient in many ways. The use of stark lighting and almost metaphoric textures wade well with the footage taken on consumer cams but the soldiers themselves. The legal process is at times a bit overdone but watching the psychology of it and the twisted logic that progresses, especially with a character, the catalyst (as one would say) in Gibbs, the commanding officer that engineered the killings and the cover ups (and is never seen), makes the resolution both mysterious but also incomplete.

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The Rocket” which won the Narrative as well as Audience Award at the fest, is an unusual progression of outsiders in a very alien landscape. Set inside Laos, which borders Thailand, the film offers a view into family life and almost tribal situations that have lasted hundred of years. When the threat of technology brings a new possibility of a dam into a valley, the local residents are relocated against their will. Their land, which had been theirs for countless years is raked from the land. The lead character, a boy obsessed with his boat and making trouble, reluctantly goes along. He is one of a pair of twins. The other was stillborn but the superstitions run high in this particular corner of the world. Despite very specific underpinings, the relationships are universal from the pig-headed father who eventually learns his lesson to the annoying but oddly correct mother-in-law (his mother) who always wants to save a buck. After a traumatic experience involving the death of the young boy’s mother, the family finds themselves in a temporary camp which pushes the idea that they will be moved permanently but they never do.
“The Rocket” refers to a rocket festival of all things where the locals launch projectiles into the heavens which creates a sense of wonder. What lifts up the film undeniably is the performance of a cool older uncle parading as the Asian James Brown. The humor he infuses creates a stark paradox to the rest of the movie and gives it the soul that allows the rest of the relationships around him to thrive.

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Northwest” uses the perspective of the unwinding element of the thug life in slow motion. The lead character here wants to increase his respect and bankroll in a less-than-well-to-do town. Moving up from simple bouncer to would-be pimp to a local boss’ prostitutes, he just wants to get what he believes he is owed. Scratching and playing two sides at one time always seems to come out bad. The reality here is that bleak suburban back streets are just as dangerous as the blowtorched remnants of old. Temptation and sex corrupt absolutely until someone wants to get paid and then it moves out the window. The interesting psychological progression here is the idea that the would-be alpha male, despite his viciousness, cannot bring himself to kill a man while someone else takes the rap for what he did. This unwinding morality tale culminates in the simple fact that no one will protect you but yourself.

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“Trust Me”, directed by character actor Clark Gregg, tells the self–effacing story of a child-actor turned child-talent agent. While the tone moves darkly in the necessity of showing that the kids are as conniving as adults, the follow-through seems remarkably magical realism in the basest film school perspective. Having found what he considers to be his ticket back to the big time, the character progression of the lead shows that the open-hearted are always being played upon. While in this idea lies a cautionary tale, the humor inherent in the story moves with an uneven grace buoyed by an interesting love interest (played by Amanda Peet) who understands this man despite his obvious shortcomings. The visual style speaks more to a TV thought pattern though the staging at the end is undeniably theater. Ultimately it speaks that the lure of Hollywood consumes all regarding where the soul comes from.

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Adult World“, starring an ernest Emma Roberts, tries way to hard to be effervescent in its story about a college graduate who has to resort to working in a adult store to pay the bills. While it is dexterous to what many graduates are going through nowadays, this film tries to use the reflection of a girl with no experience in that of the world (or the word for the matter) trying to be a writer. While the visuals do play to a baseline comparison to her famous Aunt Julia’s “Pretty Woman”, the results are more awkward than funny. Roberts’ character tries to affect her way into the life of a famous poet played with disinterested aplomb by John Cusack. She does everything going from an academic stalker to an eventual groupie in trying to impress herself upon this man who is deplorable in every sense, especially in his eventual razing of her (by publishing her poems as the worst ever made). The resolution inevitably speaks to life experience and that existence works in mysterious ways, especially when Emma’s character eventually ends up rooming with a drag queen while trying to resolve her feelings for the local boy that works at the porn shop with her.

Despite a somewhat uneven progression of films, Tribeca Film Festival continues to show a intriguing sense of programming. While the international elements of “The Machine”, “The Rocket” and “Mobius” carried the most weight, the inclusion of faltering American independents shows an interesting divide in the global marketplace in 2013 which should be interesting to follow.

Prepping The Image: 2009 Produced By Conference – Los Angeles – Part I

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The Produced By Conference, held for the first time at Sony Studios, gives a look to aspiring producers of where the new technology is going and how to get there. There was a diversity of angles to see from film office to new HD high-end taps to camera packages. One of the more interesting developments has been the use of computers to not just do the visual effects but to actually bring the title to pitch. Now more than ever studios and financiers want to see a visual representation of their investment and where it will go. Two specific sessions spoke to this possibility as well as revealed some interesting tidbits regarding recent developments.

The Collaborative Process of Visual Effects: From Previs To Post Previsualization is becoming an increasingly prevalent element in current film production techniques especially for large production but there is a chain of command in what each level might do. According to the panel, there are six different iterations: pre-vis, pitch vis, technical pre-vis, onset pre-vis, post vis and d-vis. David Morin, a technologist at Autodesk, first approaches the history of pre-vis. First it is sheer numbers. 49% of all box office receipts come from some sort of visual effects elements created in the computer. The percentage is up 5% from 2007. The timeline of pre-vis shows where it has come from. It was first used with action figures in a low tech version to plan the bike chase for “Return Of The Jedi” in 1983. In 1986, vector graphics were used to pre-vis for “The Boy Who Could Fly”. The next jump up  was in 1992 and involved more motion animation done by Frank Foster at Sony Imageworks for the car chase in “Striking Distance”. The flying sequence for “Judge Dredd” only two years later combined animation and the increasing propensity of vector. “Starship Troopers” in 1997 was the first pre-vis situation that was able to integrate camera movement. The big leap forward happened in 1999 with David Dozoretz in the design of the pod race as a pre-vis animatic for “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace”. “Fight Club”, the same year had sequences pre-vised by Colin Green at Pixel Liberation Front for the airline destruction sequence in which colors coded set extensions and layers. Then 3 years later virtual camera work for invisible effects was again integrated by Colin Green in pre-vizing “Panic Room”, again for director David Fincher. This is where the aspects of what are possible with this process begin.

Gale Ann Hurd, producer of “Terminator” and “Aliens”, then discussed “pitch vis”. The key she says is that in this current marketplace the reality is that you still need to pitch your product and set it up. Pitch Vis is especially good if you are working with first time filmmakers. You can show the financiers and the studio, if need be, the filmmaker’s sensibility through these animations and show how he/she can move the camera albeit in a virtual environment. She uses the example that she is currently working with a first time filmmaker who is a graphic novelist looking to make a debut as a feature director. They are working on pre-vis with a company called Image Engine who did work on “Fantastic Four 2” to create visuals to use as a pitch for a project entitled “The Hunted”.

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Ron Frankel, President of Proof, next approached the basis of technical pre-vis. The definition that they had come to structure involves a collaborative process that generates preliminary versions of shots or sequences. The aspect of cost is always of interest to filmmakers. It depends how much needs to be done. A whole film with a budget of 15 million dollars will cost about $50,000 to pre-vis. Frankel uses the example of the film “21” which only needed certain things done cost about $4000 in pre-vis work. His prevalent example was the work he did in technical pre-vis on “World Trade Center” working with director Oliver Stone. One of the first things he did was create a 3D model of the Towers when they fell textured with photographs. It was not supposed to be referenced as a shot. It instead gave context to where the rescue workers within the film were at any given time. The moving tech-vis goes above from a moving target to show how these workers ended up in essence where they were trapped. A majority of the work was still frames of the environment to give perspective. There was a real effort for historical accuracy which acted as quite a reality check according to Frankel. He shows a shot that Oliver had him work on while they were on set in Marina del Rey where the camera pulls out over the island. The Double Negative completed VFX looked very similar to the actual tech-vis on the day. Oliver got to see it on the day so he knew what he was getting.

Alex McDowell, Production Designer most recently on “Watchmen”, discussed the essence of “d-vis” which by common sense incorporates design elements.  Design visualization tests practical and virtual locations in relation to camera. He first worked with pre-vis with Director David Fincher on “Fight Club”. Pre-vis was brought in initially to get more control over the visual effects. He used a grid to show the balance of different departments working and how the visualization allows them to function independently. The concept elements of art follow into d-vis which is congruent with set and 3D design. From here the pipeline follows into set construction and decoration. For his most recent project with “Watchmen”, the art department started off with a concept paintings. They derived this perspective from the initial pre-vis as well as distance elements from Google Earth. This helped with the initial physics of The Comedian’s apartment and how much needed to be constructed versus the amount of CGI facades that extended beyond and more specifically downwards. This d-vis also using colors allows one to see how much practical location will work and the actual cut off where digital extensions begin. D-Vis allows precise placement in terms of actual measurements. They built three city blocks in Vancouver to stand in for NY. The painting in pre-vis uses color coding which can be broken down to the crew. Another example for use of pre-vis in “Watchmen” was the Owl Ship, even though it was actually built full size (I actually did a stand up in it at the “Watchmen” junket). The CG model was done in d-vis to get director approval. The key especially when the Owl Ship was integrated into the hangar at Nite Owl II’s home base was that the concept art had to be data accurate.

Chris Edwards, CEO of The Third Floor Pre-Vis Studio explored technical pre-vis as well. Technical pre-vis incorporates a generated and accurate camera, lighting, design and scene layout. The first example he cites that they worked on was “Valykrie” where everything was scaled in a real world environment. Instead of using the actual template, they used the essence of planning out the move in the animation incorporating the perspective of the soundstage using green screen breakdown as well as camera placement and movement. The key is to place a diagramming tool that measures distance from both the top and side views. This measurement also takes into account the velocity of camera and actors at any given point. Usually this kind of tech pre-vis can be displayed in the matte box of the camera (precisely in the heads up display). The aspects of different layers of compositing can also be integrated to show the different elements at play.

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Another example Edwards showed was an overhead tech pre-vis showing the swath of a camera and what it sees while moving down the street in the trailer tease elements for “Cloverfield”. Edwards also addresses post-vis in congruence. It combines digital elements and production photography to validate and aid in the footage selection process. An example he offers in this segue is from “Prince Caspian” for the Walt Disney Company. The River God sequence in that movie was going to be cut. The director had to find a way to somehow justify the sequence to the studio. What ended up being done is that the animation from the pre-vis was comped into the sequence with the live action and bolstered the studios confidence. In this instance and others, Edwards says that post-vis helps strengthen a sequence before the final FX. It also helps extensively when showing to test audiences when the final FX aren’t done. VFX producers can also use post-vis as a bidding tool and focus efforts.

Dan Gregoire, CEO of Halon Entertainment, focused his perceptions on onset pre-vis. The definition of onset pre-vis is to create a real time visualization on location to help the director evaluated captured imagery. The first interaction he had was when they were working on “THX-1138” for the DVD Director’s Cut. They were able to do 54 set ups in one day. Pre-vis made it happen. When he was working on “Revenge Of The Sith” they had a guest director named Steven Spielberg for a couple sequences who changed the mindset of how they could work.

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Dan went to work for Spielberg for “War Of The Worlds”. Spielberg has said that he could not have made the release date for “War” if he had not done pre-vis. On set Dan said there is certain things you need on mobile call: laptop, Maya, Adobe, a table, laser measure and a GPS locater integrated with a digital camera, Google maps and a roving internet connection. He also said you need one extra of everything. He jokes that on “War Of The Worlds” sometimes he had to jump an internet connection from nearby churches. Dan would travel with 1st Unit. The pre-vis on the day allowed Spielberg to make the decision to blow up the bridge which was a big set piece. Before it was simply going to be the destruction of a gas station. Pre-vis made this possible. For the final take down of the pods, Steven could not go to all the locations so they had to do virtual site scouts using pre-vis.Dan went up in a chopper and tasked the scanned footage/pictures into the sequence.

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Dan next worked doing onset pre-vis for Indiana Jones and The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull”. Spielberg found out on this show that the key at times was control the message to all department heads especially if you are shooting at a breakneck pace. Sometimes Spielberg would come up with an idea and poeple would go right to work on it. He didn’t want people to spend money unless he was firm on the idea. Using this kind of pre vis allowed him to dessimate out information to specific people.

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Roger Guyett, VFX Supervisor on “Star Trek” for ILM talked about the importance of pre vis aided by David Dozoretz who showed the pre-vis of the planet dive sequence. It is better to do these pre-vis to see if an actual sequence should be in a movie or not. For “Star Trek”, Guyett says that pre-vis took close to a year. But, for him, looking at pre-vis, the shooting criteria was different and had to be maintained. He wanted to try to do as much in camera as possible. He wanted to be able to shoot in real light and create a natural realism. During this he says that the gimble was always locking up on set so they had to keep replacing the hot heads. To add to this, he also wanted to us minimal green screen and use the sky whenever possible.

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The rub was that the only way they could make it happen is that they would have to realize two locations on two sets in one location. He had to figure out a way to do the weapon platform and the ice world planet on the same location. The way he ended up doing it was shooting at a wide swath of the parking lot at Dodger Stadium where a clear horizon could be seen. JJ Abrams thought he was insane but they made it work. It was just a matter of angle the structure with the pre-vis and the green screen just right.

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The sneak peak at the panel was from Marc Weigert who is the co-producer and VFX Supervisor on 2012, Roland Emmerich’s new action picture about the Mayan prophecy about the end of the world. He brought pictures showing the extensive green screen that was constructed in Vancouver for the shoot. The aspect was to have the flow of green screen on either side of a moving car for a respective chase sequence. The scene he was building up to show involves a 10.5 earthquake hitting Los Angeles. The story set up on the scene is that John Cusack’s limo driver goes to save his kids and his ex-wife and, by extension, her new husband. The pre-vis on the effects that he shows involve the question of how do you create the aspect of such an earthquake? Roland and Marc’s perception seemed to be like a big rolling wave swallowing up everything in its path. The scene itself, which was rough and seemingly had not been shown publicly before, shows Cusack running into his former house and getting his ex-wife (played by Amanda Peet) and their kids into the car just as the earthquake consumes their house. He is driving ahead of  the rolling destruction but just barely as you see houses simply swallowed by the earth. In a short piece of Emmerich’s humor, Cusack gets stuck behind two old ladies in a car who can barely see over the . He eventually drives around them but the old ladies’ car goes headfirst into a big piece of rock. The car heads on but as they turn down a street, cars from a parking garage are being thrown out into their way and right ahead of them the freeway begins to topple over sending more cars careening. Cusack accelerates as he has to clear under one part of the freeway before it completely collapses. He does so but a high rise begins to fall in front of them. There is no way around. I guess he is going in. After applause, Marc says they have 7 or so more weeks of FX work on the film to do. 2012 is being released in November.

The aspect of pre-vis speaks to the aspect of all different types of production. With a high end panel like this with past, present and definitive future experience, the real world applications to producers on this front is quite specific.

Part 2 of our coverage of the 2009 Produced By Conference will explore the intracies of motion capture and its integrations into such systems as pre-vis.

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