The Produced By Conference offers an interesting perception for the up-and-coming producers in play to have close access to the producers who are getting the big films done. While different elements, especially the medium of TV, seemingly have a bigger impact on the progression, the rules of what works always change and yet story functionality stays the same which is further emphasized with both exec discussions and notions of narrative connection.
A Conversation With Michael Burns The Vice Chairman of Lionsgate has enjoyed a very interesting couple years with the smaller studio making leaps and bounds to interact with the big players in a series of interesting power moves beginning first with the acquisition of Artisan Entertainment a couple years ago and recently with Summit and the immense success of “The Hunger Games”. The ideas of what this studio truly wants to be comes into question which through an informal discussion with producer (and Produced By co-chair) Gary Lucchesi of Lakeshore Entertainment (whom Lionsgate made the recent “Lincoln Lawyer” with) allows certain details to more come to light.
Burns started off in the financial sector in NY in the 80s with places such as Lehmann and eventually Prudential which gave him access into the media/entertainment sector. From the very beginning, the film “The Exorcist” was very influential to Burns which definitely created an irony when Sherry Lansing and her husband William Friedkin (who directed that film) later became his neighbors. In an ode out of “Mad Men”, Burns’ dad (ironically named Pete like one of the central protagonists on the show) was “very much like the Don Draper character”. One of the lessons his father taught had him at the end of his primary schooling given a $5000 check that said “The End”.
Moving through business school on his own, the key for Burns was “vary to entry and first mover advantage” which he learned in the financial sector. This ideal applies, at times, to new platforms which he suggests not trying on the inset calling the action “a fool’s errand”. For him, the movie that turned Lionsgate around is not the one you would think: “Monster’s Ball”. That began to fuel his motto: know who is showing up opening weekend. Turning to the perception of franchises like “The Hunger Games” and the acquired “Twilight” series, he knew (specifically in relation to “Hunger Games”), that they could take up to 25 million dollars of risk. The Summit acquisition, he continues, he saw as a “risky deal” because he was worried people were possibly burned out on the “Twilight” franchise (they were not). Continuing on that course, in terms of looking forward, Lionsgate just finished shooting “Ender’s Game” which Burns believes could be a franchise as well. The biggest challenge he sees is the comparative size of P&A budgets and how to make the product “rise above” others which also keys into finding the right opening weekend. Overseas, of course, is very important. Sergei Yershov, one of his execs at Lionsgate, helped set up everything for distribution in Russia and that country has now become a Top 5 territory for them.
Moving into formats, Burns says that “3D is great for the right movie” but says that “I am not the right guy”. Television is now becoming though the go-to spot. He uses the example of all the material at Sundance but ultimately each year that festival only produces one film people will hear of widely. This creates the motivation for those kind of indie writer/directors to go to TV because that is where their voices can be heard. Burns explains that as he looks at their library, he thinks that “Red” or “The Expendables” can be television series but the question becomes: can it be serialized? And can you get the talent to agree to be in it?
Attacking notions of perception, Burns says that “we don’t want to be the new major” but “we want to be a studio with the biggest library”. In terms of accessing a new and increasingly diverse audience, the possibilities become more analytic. He examples that Netflix, despite its entry into the workspace, is an MSO whereas Showtime, as a comparison, is not in 22 million homes. This thereby creates the notion of content becoming ubiquitous. Through these kind of elements, Lionsgate is able to test certain aspects. Burns concedes this fact saying that they have equity in Roadside Attractions. This allows them, especially in the VOD space, to test releases (like with “Margin Call” last year) or give an early jump to a film like “Abduction”. This propels Burns’ thought from a studio perspective: “Don’t rush it. Wait”. It also plays into his idea on development. Lionsgate is more likely (in all points) to buy a finished script (or for that fact, a film) and not a pitch or outline. He uses the example of “Crash” which won best picture saying that “we were the only bidder). Some films do disappoint. He really liked “Warrior” but it couldn’t find its audience. Lionsgate put 30 in but it only made 13.
Franchise Building Finding the right angles in order to make something popular over and over again holds a lot of its power to the instinct of mass appeal and anticipating certain elements of all demographics. Lorenzo di Bonaventura, like fellow panelist Nina Jacobson, has seen the aspect from both a studio exec side (The Matrix, Harry Potter) as well as from the producer side (Transformers, GI Joe). Di Bonaventura starts off with a joke about when Warner made “The Perfect Storm” with George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg. he had a discussion with then-studio head Alan Horn that “maybe one guy should live”. In terms of finding that perfect “alchemy”, he textures that “tone is the divining rod”. That said, he says that you also have to have someone with the right vision at the inset. He mentions that he had lunch with Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) a week or so prior to the conference and they discussed that Chris Columbus (who directed the first two “Potter” films) “doesn’t get enough credit” for the work he did in establishing the world. In the past couple years though, from di Bonaventura’s perspective, the scrutiny on the industry has changed because there is “a different value system”. He chuckled remembering when he was on a whitewater rafting trip in Idaho that people were talking there about box office receipts which was never the case before. But, he quips, not everything is a sure bet. Di Bonaventura says that “Transformers” was passed on by his home studio 5 times. The key remains though in terms of these types of films is “don’t forget to kill somebody” because “you need to have stakes”. People discussed this when he was asked if Morgan Freeman was coming back for “Red 2”. His point is do not mess with the alchemy because the longer a franchise goes, the more it has to evolve and “if you are going to change, you have to be bold with what you are going to do”.
Nina Jacobson, who is one of the main producers responsible for the hit”Hunger Games” says that “at the heart of any franchise are characters that people want to see again”. In terms of “Games” coming together, she says that director [Gary] “Ross understood tonal bandwidth”. Getting into the larger story definitely, she says, makes the syndrome more acute. When the idea of “Games” in 3D is brought up, her response about kids killing kids in 3D: “distasteful”.
Todd Phillips, one of the other panelists, slightly watching from the outside because his “Hangover” franchise is not based on some pre-ordained property, says that he is “interested by this whole conversation”. He recalls a meeting he had with di Bonaventura, when the previous was still an exec at Warner Brothers, regarding the aspects of a writer saying “with 120 pages of writing, you have your say” continuing that the execs tend to speak at writers and not to them at that point. In terms of why his current franchise works, he replies that “people have hangovers all over the world” though he specifies that “The Hangover 3” which they are starting work on currently “turns into an entirely different movie” because “it is not a forgotten night” but “still takes place in the real world”.
The elements of producing and making the ideas stick and flourish in real world big-budget situations is the cornerstone of what Produced By as a conference celebrates but it also allows those execs in power to pass on needed advice to those who might follow.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.