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A GOLDEN KEY? Film Fund serves as common link between some of the region’s most promising stories for the screen

What does a story about an Indonesian school girl with big dreams, a tale of a modern day pilgrim searching for a place to call home, and an account of two miners from Vietnam confronting the ghosts of the past, have in common? The answer: All are exciting new feature film projects developed with the support of the MPA APSA Academy Film Fund.

The Fund, a joint initiative of the Motion Picture Association and the Asia Pacific Screen Academy, aims to encourage and empower creative filmmakers. The films they feel inspired to make may be unconventional in style and content, may be about contemporary or historical social issues that don’t fit within the conventions of a mainstream industry, or may be in jeopardy of attracting uninvited censorship or political restraint.  The filmmakers may be located outside their own country’s commercial film and TV industries, working alongside them or within them.

Yuni (2021) (Source: Asia Pacific Screen Awards)

 

An Indonesian project entitled Yuni attracted the attention of the Fund jury in 2018 because it was the work of a strong female director, Kamila Andini, seeking to explore the thoughts and emotions of a teenage schoolgirl faced with the pressure of regimented social structures around her. As the film’s synopsis says, “Yuni realizes that when her dreams get bigger, the world around her gets smaller.” Driven to resist the push from family and friends to accept a domestic role in an arranged marriage, she struggles to find a way of pursuing her own preference for continuing study at an advanced level. The communal constraints that surround her include the threat of a virginity test at her school for any students felt by teachers to be “at risk” of pregnancy. Her complex responses to these tensions are the substance and strength of the project, and the submission felt authentic, sensitive, and empathetic. Kamila Adani was nominated for Best Achievement in Directing in the 2021 Asia Pacific Screen Awards for her work on Yuni, which now begins a Festival career around the world. Toronto is the first and likely many more will follow.

No Land’s Man (2021) (Image courtesy of Mostofa Sawar Farooki)

 

No Land’s Man from Bangladeshi filmmaker Mostofa Sarwar Farooki was similarly convincing as a project from the heart. Essentially a classic picaresque fable about a man’s journey through a turbulent life, the project partly drew on Farooki’s personal experiences to examine the progress of a modern “pilgrim” – in this case, a lone, stateless man who moves from one country to another looking for legal status and a place he can call home. In his identity crisis, he has no certainty about his name, religion, or nationality.

Farooki’s remarkable debut feature, Television (2012), about a rural village where the community leaders ban television, signaled him to be an innovative artist supremely committed to making his films in his own way, in the face of innumerable obstacles.

With No Land’s Man, after receiving the support of the MPA APSA Academy Film Fund in 2014, the project went on to participate in the Asian Project Market at Busan in South Korea and was chosen as the best project at India’s Film Bazaar. After receiving the grant, Farooki spent some months working with Australian producer Graeme Isaac pursuing Australian finance so that he could film an episode of the story in Australia. While the location shoot didn’t happen, an Australian actress, Megan Mitchell, remained in the cast as a young woman who meets the pilgrim in the USA. The film moved forward dramatically when Indian star Nawazuddin Siddiqui made a personal commitment to join the team as lead actor and co-producer: “I thought this is our film. It is as much my film as it is Farooki’s, and it needs to get made,” Siddiqui said. With its personal origins, sense of social relevance, urgency, and bold narrative structure, the project commanded attention from the MPA APSA Academy Film Fund and is set to travel far internationally after its 2021 world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival.

Truong Minh Quý, Bianca Balbuena & Bradley Liew (Source: IFFR)

 

An international life also awaits Viêt And Nam, a film now in pre-production, which received a grant from the Fund in 2020. With a Vietnamese director, Trương Minh Quý, and Filippino producers, Bianca Balbuena and Bradley Liew, the film is already crossing boundaries. Trương’s project signals its uniqueness and commands attention when he describes his narrative as “lying between documentary and fiction, personal and impersonal, drawing on the landscape of his homeland, childhood memories, and the historical context of Vietnam.” The submission radiated a sense of urgency and emotional depth in facing issues of profound social dislocation and alienation, with characters still haunted by memories of the Vietnam War decades earlier, and inspired in part by the appalling death of 39 Vietnamese, who suffocated in a container lorry in England in August 2015.

Việt and Nam are two miners who work deep below ground, struggling between their love for each other and their conflicting desires for their futures. In their journeys, together and apart, they confront “the ghosts of Vietnam’s past and the uncertainty of its present.” Nam helps his mother search for the remains of his father, a soldier in the war, with endless hope but no success.  He decides to leave his mother and Việt and finds an agent who can smuggle him abroad.

The Fund was not alone in identifying the strength of this project. It also attracted a grant from the prestigious Hubert Bals Development Fund in the Netherlands. The film is due to be completed in 2022.

These three films exemplify the strength of the MPA APSA Academy Film Fund in promoting authentic and diverse voices from the Asia-Pacific region, and in engaging with filmmakers in fundamentally practical ways, through finance and through endorsement. To be backed by the Fund can raise a project’s profile simply through the association with the Fund’s long list of prestigious recipients, beginning with an Oscar-winner, A Separation, by Asghar Farhadi, in the Fund’s very first year of operation.

With jurors drawn from all sectors of the industry across the Asia-Pacific region, the grants carry with them networking opportunities. Bonds are created and connections made. The Fund’s goal is to promote independent filmmakers in cutting-edge work and to expand and enhance the potential for creative artists in the film domain. Audiences worldwide are also beneficiaries, both in the short term when the film is first released domestically and overseas, and also in the long-term as the film moves onto new services and continues to circulate. It cannot be underestimated too, that the Fund, through cinema, is documenting the social history and helping to stimulate understanding and awareness of communal and historical complexities in ways that would not otherwise be possible. The goal of empowering the open-ended exchange of ideas and experiences at home and abroad makes this Fund much more than an industry assistance agency.

This article was originally published on the MPA-APAC website.

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“The Matrix Resurrections” Cast Reflects on Legacy of “The Matrix”

“Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure is real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?”

You might recall these lines from the original The Matrix, spoken by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) to Neo (Keanu Reeves) in the film that changed the game for not only sci-fi films going forward, but for what was possible to depict on screen. The effects alone would have made The Matrix a major moment in film history, but it was the story of a terrifying reality beneath the glossy, workaday dream-world we all believe is real that captured the attention of millions. Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s The Matrix wasn’t just an epic sci-fi blockbuster that revealed “bullet-time” visual effects technology to the world, it was also a deeply felt story about the human mind, the capacity for every individual to break free from the prison of comforting conformity and see the world for what it really is.

Then, of course, there were the iconic performances. Fishburne, Reeves, and Carrie-Anne Moss, as Trinity, were the film’s stars. But you’ll recall, as you watch this new featurette from Warner Bros. on the legacy of The Matrix, just how many great performers populated Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s film. Hugo Weaving was pitch-perfect as the malevolent Agent Smith, but so, too, was Jada Pinkett Smith’s Niobe and the wisecracking Joe Pantoliano as Cypher. “Buckle your seatbelt, Dorothy, because Kansas is going bye-bye,” Cypher says to Neo, and he was right. Only the rest of us were on that trip with Neo, too.

Carrie-Anne, Moss Laurence Fishburne, and Keanu Reeves standing against brick wall in a scene from the film ‘The Matrix Reloaded’, 2003. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images)

 

In the new featurette, the cast of The Matrix Resurrections reflects on what the original film meant to them. Original and current stars like Reeves and Moss offer their perspective on how the film changed their lives, while newcomers recall reacting to the film the same way you and I did. “I left the movie theater just knowing things were going to be different in my life,” new cast member Eréndira Ibarra says. “You can’t quantify how much it changed the world,” adds Jessica Henwick, who plays Bugs in Resurrections. “The best and most iconic thing I remember is Neo dodging the bullets,” says Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who has a big role in the upcoming film.

The cast makes the point that elements of The Matrix have become so deeply embedded in our culture you might forget that they sprung from the film in the first place. Whether it’s a reference to the red pill or the blue pill, or someone simply mentioning “a glitch in the Matrix” to describe something weird happening, the original film really did have a massive, lasting impact. This is why there is so much excitement to see what Lana Wachowski has cooking with The Matrix Resurrections.

Check out the featurette below. The Matrix Resurrections hits theaters on December 22.

This article was originally published on The Credits.

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“No Time to Die” DP Linus Sandgren on Daniel Craig’s Epic Sendoff as James Bond

In No Time to Die, Daniel Craig gets two hours and 43 minutes to show James Bond fans what they’ll be missing once he exits his five-movie run as the world’s most enduring British spy. Following Craig’s every step, car chase, and explosion along the way is Swedish DP Linus Sandgren. “It was important in this film to make sure that we bookend Daniel Craig’s chapter of Bond in an exciting way,” says Sandgren. Acclaimed for his Oscar-winning cinematography on La La Land as well as American Hustle and NASA space epic First Man, Sandgren joined director/co-writer Cary Fukunaga, cast and crew on a globe-hopping seven-month production filmed in Norway, Italy, Jamacia, London, Scotland, and the North Atlantic Faroe Islands.

Co-starring Rami Malek, Léa Seydoux and Ralph Fiennes, and Lashana Lynch as the first Black female 007,  No Time to Die offers plenty of spectacle, augmented in some theaters as the first Bond movie to be filmed partially in IMAX. But Sandgren takes just as much pleasure in capturing smaller moments. Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, Sandgren offers his take on the cinematic virtues of location-hopping, the beauty of handheld camera work, and the pleasures of capturing Daniel Craig’s emotional range in all his Bondian glory.

In the best Bond tradition, No Time to Die hops all over the place. How did all these locations impact the cinematography?

In a global adventure like this, locations give you a great opportunity to travel and put the plot into whatever location fits the story, and the cinematography is crucial for the emotions to come through. That’s how I like to think about it. I don’t like to think of cinematography so much technically. It’s about emotions and feelings. Thrills, joy, laughter, humor, you always try to relate the imagery to these emotions.

James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) in
NO TIME TO DIE, an EON Productions and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios film. Credit: Nicola Dove. © 2020 DANJAQ, LLC AND MGM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

Another Jame Bond tradition: the big set piece at the beginning usually features 007 in some spectacular action sequence. Here, we open on a mother and daughter in Norway with Bond nowhere in sight. It’s quite a contrast in scenery when Bond then makes his appearance.

We wanted to go from this horrific incident in a cold, icy location where we make you really feel the isolation through the cinematography. And then we cut to [coastal Italian village] Matera, which is hot, sunny, and the complete opposite of the snow. Matera’s this very romantic setting, which we captured by shooting at sunset, through dusk to twilight. Cary was very eager to have the story jump each time to a new place.

Daniel Craig stars as James Bond and Léa Seydoux as Dr. Madeleine Swann in NO TIME TO DIE, an EON Productions and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios film. Credit: Nicola Dove. © 2021 DANJAQ, LLC AND MGM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

Next day it’s the same location but a totally different vibe. How did you achieve that?

The morning starts out very romantic as well, but suddenly changes into the worst location you could be in if you’re being chased because you’re going to hit your head really hard against these hard rocky walls in this location that just a minute ago seemed so romantic. For the chase, the light becomes very bright and harsh scary. We also go from sweeping, picturesque visuals to much more handheld [camera work] which gives us this raw, brutal imagery for the action.

 

Bond’s first mission targets a Cuban nightclub (filmed in Jamaica). What kind of atmosphere did you want to render through your cinematography?

The exotic streets of Cuba we decided to shoot in twilight. Then later at night, they travel out to sea in the boat and we shoot that dark blue, not black night, so you can still have a little bit of light in the sky. Even when something’s monochromatic, it’s always more interesting when there’s color. And a big part of the film’s visual [style] is that we intended it to be colorful.

Rami Malek (Safin) on the set of NO TIME TO DIE, an EON Productions and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios film. Credit: Nicola Dove. © 2021 DANJAQ, LLC AND MGM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

You shot on actual film stock, which is pretty rare these days. How did that choice affect the way you shaped your color palette?

Nothing was forced on the color during post-production. By capturing everything on film stock, the lighting color temperatures we worked with made each location feel distinct and also helped set the mood we were trying to create for that scene.

Ralph Fiennes stars as M and Daniel Craig as James Bond in NO TIME TO DIE, an EON Productions and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios film. Credit: Nicola Dove. © 2021 DANJAQ, LLC AND MGM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

So what you shot is what you got, as opposed to digital, where filmmakers often modify the color in post-production?

Making No Time to Die, my intention is that whatever we shoot in-camera, on set, should come back the next day and that is what the film should look like ever after. I’m disappointed if it does not look the way I lit it and captured it in the camera. But sure, when I shoot digital, like on La La Land for example, you use look-up tables to create a distinct look and then you proof-process the footage to get a smoother, softer contrast. But in this case, we did our tests, shot on film, and processed our film stock in the normal way.

Rami Malek stars as Safin in NO TIME TO DIE, an EON Productions and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios film. Credit: Christopher Raphael. © 2021 DANJAQ, LLC AND MGM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

No Time to Die features a lot of epic wide shots. What format did you use?

We shot anamorphic 35 mm as the base for our story, and then we filmed certain sequences with IMAX cameras. If you see these scenes in an Imax theater, the image opens up below and above your head as a way of giving the audience an additional experience of immersive-ness.

You’ve previously worked with intense actors like Ryan Gosling in La La Land and Christian Bale in American Hustle. Viewed through your lens, what is it that makes Daniel Craig so appealing as a screen presence in this, his final Bond film?

He has such a range. Daniel can be charming and witty but he also has the ability to kill a lot of bad guys. And then he can also be very soft or emotionally sensitive. The thing Daniel brings to the Bond franchise is this depth of emotion, where he’s able to express loss and grief and love. As a cinematographer, I’m always thinking “What is this scene about?” Sometimes it can get so emotional that you almost want to be a little bit behind the actor in certain scenes because you want to be respectful and watch him in a more effective way than if you have him looking right into the camera.

Daniel Craig stars as James Bond in NO TIME TO DIE, an EON Productions and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios film. Credit: Nicola Dove. © 2021 DANJAQ, LLC AND MGM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

With five Bond movies now under his belt, Daniel Craig at this point probably serves as an all-around creative partner as well as an actor.

Definitely. He’s very much a filmmaker, involved in discussions on set. And as an actor, he’s very professional. Daniel knows where the cameras are, he knows where to face himself to catch the light in his eye to look more heroic.

Yet he never seems self-conscious. When Daniel Craig shifts into fight mode, do you approach the camera work differently from his more intimate scenes?

When Daniel’s in danger, we oftentimes work with handheld cameras. He picks something up. Cut. There’s a gun. Cut. He’s smart, swift, and very effective.

No Time To Die is in theatres on November 8.

This article was originally published on The Credits.

 

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Emmy Winner Jessica Hobbs on Why Directing “The Crown” is a Royal Treat

The 73rd Emmys shined bright over the weekend with a number of fresh faces taking home a statue, including Michaela Coel accepting the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Limited or Anthology Series in a rousing speech for I May Destroy You. It was the first time a woman of color won the award.

The Crown director Jessica Hobbs was also among the newly enshrined during the live broadcast, winning the Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series category for the season four finale of the beloved Netflix series. The episode “War” chronicles Diana’s unraveling marriage to Prince Charles and the dichotomy of their relationship while Queen Elizabeth asks Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to step down in a scene with such stirring intensity you could cut with a knife.

Below, Hobbs shares her insight into the episode and what makes the series so special.

There always seems to be a bit more pressure when directing a season finale. You’ve done so the last two seasons of The Crown. Do you look at them any differently or try to ignore that notion altogether?

One of the joys of directing The Crown is how self-contained each of the episodes are. Peter Morgan (creator/writer) is very encouraging about approaching each episode as if it’s a stand-alone film. Having said that, with the finales I do find that I approach them differently. The responsibility, and desire, is to complete the season for the audience in a way that delivers on the overarching themes set up in the writing.

Margaret Thatcher (GILLIAN ANDERSON). Filming Location: Wrotham Park. Photo: Des Willie/Netflix.

 

In Season 4, this was the culmination of the two challenging females that the Queen comes up against – Margaret Thatcher and Diana. In the finale, one was going to exit, permanently, and the other was preparing to start a personal war. I wanted to truthfully reflect the Queen’s discomfort in saying goodbye to Thatcher. I love the way that Olivia and Gillian played that final scene. It was disquieting in the best way.

For the very ending, I felt that isolating Diana and slowly closing in on her face would help us understand how isolated she felt at that moment. Deciding to shoot Diana like that – with the obliviousness of the Queen and the other family members around her – was a deliberate choice to catapult us into season 4. Philip felt he’d told Diana she was not the ‘center,’ but I wanted our audience to know she was the impending ‘war.’

Picture shows: Princess Diana (EMMA CORRIN). Photo by Des Willie.

 

“War” is all about power and Diana specifically sees how much impact she has on issues. How did you want to approach her People’s Princess persona in the episode?

It was very important to allow the audience to experience the sheer wattage and personal power that Diana’s natural empathy allowed her. And at the same time, as in war, there’s isolation, loneliness, and a wobble towards madness can come with it. I found it incredibly moving to show that Thatcher felt that without her job, her status as PM, she would be ‘nothing.’ The Queen won through sheer staying power. She is irreplaceable. But reflecting Diana’s need to be “seen” to have a place in the family – that competition was always going to lead to an all-out war. Diana’s connectivity with people. Her natural empathy and her need to reach out. I wanted us to reflect that– she gave the people what they wanted. A fairytale, a princess. But I also felt that with being the “People’s Princess” there was a cost. She was adored by the public and shone when surrounded by them – and that only reflected her own sense of isolation and loneliness.

The Crown S4. Picture shows: Diana Princess of Wales (EMMA CORRIN). Filming Location: Military Hostel Front, Malaga

 

PICTURE SHOWS: Queen Elizabeth II (OLIVIA COLMAN). Filming Location: Lyceum Theatre

 

What stands out about The Crown is its scale. But it’s done so in a way that isn’t gratuitous. How do you approach things visually to keep things grounded?

I love that you say that it’s not done in a way that’s gratuitous! It’s something I intensely focus on. It’s allowing the audience to experience the scale of the lives the Royal Family lead without it being self-conscious. These homes, castles, jubilees, public crowds are extraordinary to those of us who lead ordinary lives but not to our characters – to them they are just ‘work’ and ‘home.’ What I love is to continually push to find ways to allow the audience to experience these lives by keeping it visceral and building on the sensation of what it must be like to live as the Royals do. Being casual about the opulence and formalities allows you to have fun with where you take the audience.

 

Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies in ‘The Crown.’ Courtesy Des Willie / Netflix

 

The Crown has such a fantastic cast. How do you like approaching things in order to try new things?

The Crown has a generous schedule which does provide the kind of directorial room for you to take risks and push the experience for the audience. It’s been such a gift to take one cast through two seasons and then to start an entirely new cast off in these last seasons. It’s always challenging for the new cast to walk in the shoes of those who have played the roles before them. I did find there was a joy and freedom for our cast who developed from Season 3 into Season 4.

How so?

Each of them gained confidence and surety about who they were portraying. And this also meant we could push the filming to find those magical unexpected moments of reflection. I always love shooting a little off-script, allowing a bit of emotional anarchy and surprise to find its way into the filming. It’s a huge privilege to work with a writer that encourages that kind of directorial risk-taking.

Picture shows: Priness Diana (EMMA CORRIN) and Prince Charles (JOSH O CONNOR) Photo by Ollie Upton

 

What makes the series so unique to go back to?

There’s an extraordinary team behind it who gives you incredible support. Hands down, these are the best producers I’ve ever worked with. Peter Morgan is brilliant, generous, and funny. You’re encouraged to push your individual point of view and because the scripts are muscular and sparse there’s amazing freedom in your translation of the material. I love working like this, it pushes you to be risky, expansive, and authorial – what director wouldn’t want more of that!

Featured image: LONDON, ENGLAND – SEPTEMBER 19: Jessica Hobbs celebrates winning the Emmy award for ‘Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series’, at the “The Crown” 73rd Primetime Emmys Celebration at Soho House on September 19, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

This article was originally published on The Credits.

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How Underwater Cinematographer Ian Seabrook Got The Shots in “Jungle Cruise”

Disney’s latest blockbuster based on a ride, director Jaume Collet-Serra’s Jungle Cruise, is a banter-filled romp down the Amazon. Blue-blooded adventurer Lily (Emily Blunt) drags her fusspot brother, MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), to South America in pursuit of the petals of an all-powerful healing tree. Their guiding trinket is an arrowhead, pilfered with great difficulty from a retrograde London men’s scientific society. Upon landing on the other side of the world, the pair wind up in the hands of riverboat captain Frank (Dwayne Johnson), a debtor prone to horrendous puns but an otherwise upstanding fellow. The group is plagued by trouble from the start, but Lily is determined to fulfill her adventurer father’s incomplete mission.

Competing factions have equally virulent but less altruistic interest than Lily in the magical flora. For a group of zombie 16th-century conquistadors, the petals are their solution to return to the living and wreak revenge on the entity that cursed and bound them to the river. A marauding German prince, Joachim (Jesse Plemons), sees the petals as the key to Germany’s wartime success (it’s 1916, and World War I is raging across the ocean). But it takes Lily’s gumption and Frank’s grouchily proffered support to unlock the secret of the tree, an event that takes place in a giant underwater puzzle.

Dwayne Johnson as Frank and Emily Blunt as Lily in JUNGLE CRUISE. Photo by Frank Masi. © 2020 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

The scene is only a few minutes long but the plot hangs in its balance. Underwater cinematographer Ian Seabrook (Old, In the Shadow of the Moon), shot Blunt and Johnson in one tank for the moments above the water’s surface, avoiding a huge vacuum intake valve creating an artificial current. “I was told by the marine coordinator don’t go anywhere near that,’ because thatll just suck you right underwater,” Seabrook said. Below the surface of the water, in the production’s second tank, Lily’s goal is to get back up as fast as she can — solving the puzzle causes it to rise out of the water. Seabrook held on to 80 pounds of camera and housing in order to get the shot, in which Lauren Shaw, Blunt’s underwater double, was locked into the puzzle with one small top opening to escape. “They did have a spare air tank in there for her, but she never used it,” Seabrook said of Shaw, who didn’t even need to use a regulator to breathe during rehearsals.

(L-R): Emily Blunt, Dwayne Johnson and director Jaume Collet-Serra on the set of Disney’s JUNGLE CRUISE. Photo by Frank Masi. © 2021 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

“The set itself was an overhead environment and it was confined. So when shes moving the puzzle pieces around, [Shaw’s] really got her back against the wall. And shes got something over her head. So shes holding her breath while doing all that, using her feet, and doing whatever else she was doing. She was spectacular,” the underwater cinematographer added. For these crucial scenes, Seabrook also spent plenty of time holding his breath while plying his craft. The shots were 15 to 30 seconds, with preparation to get everything down bringing the time spent underwater to about a minute (all the underwater scenes were shot over the course of a week and a half). The process looks different in, say, the open ocean, but “oftentimes, when we’re in these smaller sets, if you wear an oxygen tank, you’re smashing into everything, you’re going to wreck the set, and you don’t have the mobility,” he said.

The underwater cinematographer was first called to his unusual line of work as a child, holding his breath watching Sean Connery swim through a shark-infested estate in Thunderball. He later began his career as an underwater photographer, progressing to underwater cinematography, a field in which the camera comes first despite the unusual physical demands. “The job entails composition and lighting and grip work and breath-hold and your diving skills have to be second,” Seabrook explained. “You can’t even look at anything. You have to concentrate on the shot, otherwise, you’ll be flailing.” Despite the jocular vibes, there’s no room in Jungle Cruise for heroine Lily and her sidekick Frank to flinch, and behind the camera, it was the same, whether above the surface of the river or below.

 

Featured image: Dwayne Johnson and director Jaume Collet-Serra on the set of Disney’s JUNGLE CRUISE. Photo by Frank Masi. © 2021 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

This article was originally published on The Credits.

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Taika Waititi Talks “Thor: Love and Thunder” & His “Star Wars” Movie

Taika Waititi has a tremendous amount going on at the moment. The writer/director/actor will next be seen in director Shawn Levy’s Free Guywhere he blessedly got a break from the writing and directing duties to simply co-star in the film with Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer. Waititi plays the film’s villain, a loathsome tech bro named Antoine. Not that acting isn’t work, of course, but when you consider what else Waititi has going on, you’d be excused for thinking it must have felt like a break.

Waititi just wrapped filming on Thor: Love and Thunder, his follow-up to the film that made him a bonafide directing star, 2018’s Thor: Ragnarok. This has allowed him to start focusing on another little project, his Star Wars film. Speaking with WiredWaititi was able to dish just a bit about where that project’s at and what he’s feeling thus far.

“It’s still in the ‘EXT. SPACE’ stage,” he tells Wired, a reference to a script just being started. “But we’ve got a story. I’m really excited by it because it feels very me.” When Wired asked how he was able to marry his tone and style—irreverence, wit, endless shenanigans—to the more earnest Star Wars universe, Waititi wasn’t concerned. “I tend to go down that little sincerity alleyway in my films,” he said. “I like to fool the viewer into thinking ‘ha it’s this’ and then them going, ‘Damn it, you made me feel something!’”

Feeling something sounds like it was also on his mind when he was crafting Thor: Love and Thunder, which he has said is the craziest film he’s ever done. Not only has Waititi promised that Love and Thunder is going to be insane, but it’ll also do something no one was counting on. “What I wanted to do from the beginning was to ask: ‘What are people expecting the least from this franchise?’” he told Wired, “Oh, I know – a full-blown love story!”

This article was originally published in The Credits.

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How the Emmy-Nominated “WandaVision” VFX Team Made Magic

Laden with special effects, big-name stars, and an audacious high concept, WandaVision represented a big swing for Marvel Studios when it debuted in January on Disney+. The bet paid off. Creator Jac Schaeffer’s series quickly became one of the season’s most talked-about new shows and it’s now validated all that buzz with a whopping 23 Emmy nominations. The hook? Superheroic witch Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and android Vision (Paul Bettany) disguise themselves as man and wife living sitcom-perfect lives in small-town New Jersey. Juxtaposed against the couples’ seventies-styled retro innocence is a nefarious supernatural scheme that threatens to destroy Wanda and Vision’s safe harbor in the aftermath of 2019’s cataclysmic Avengers: Endgame. Oh, and one more twist—Vision died in Avengers: Infinity War, so his presence in WandaVision was all the more mysterious.

Helping to jolt crimson-headed Vision from one dimension to the next is Toronto VFX company Monsters Aliens Robots Zombies (MARZ), which earned visual effects nominations for WandaVision as well as Netflix series The Umbrella Academy. Launched in 2018, MARZ uses artificial intelligence to deliver movie-quality effects on TV budgets.

Visual effects supervisor Ryan Freer and MARZ Chief Operating Officer Matt Panousischecked in with The Credits to talk about Bettany’s chin, Vision’s cape, and other transformational tricks of the computer-generated trade.

WandaVision VFX Reel — Vision | MARZ from MARZ VFX on Vimeo.

Congratulations on your Emmy nominations for The Umbrella Academy and especially for WandaVision, which marks the first time you worked for Marvel. How did you get the gig?

Ryan: We did a test for Marvel doing our version of a shot from Avengers: Age of Ultron, where Vision’s basically being born. Marvel gave us the [background] plate and some assets that had been done already by another vendor and asked us: Can you do this? We’d just done a bunch of head replacement stuff on HBO’s Watchmen so we were able to create the shot to their standard, and that got the ball rolling.

Matt: The big caveat there is not just “can you do it?” but can you do it on a [shorter] TV timeline and [lower] budget. Marvel’s the epitome of premium episodic television so there was a lot of work that went into it getting the shot where it needed to be.

How did this sitcom-inspired version of Vision differ from the big screen character?

Ryan: In the movies, he’s very calm and collected but in our show, Vision does funny slap-sticky things. The director [Matt Shakman] and even Paul Bettany didn’t know if Vision being goofy was going to work. Also, we’ve never seen Vision in black and white, we’ve never seen him in the seventies. These are things we worked really hard with Marvel to perfect.

Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen in ‘WandaVision.’ Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2020. All Rights Reserved/Disney+

 

Details are so important in making visual effects seem believable. What are some more subtle aspects of Vision that you guys obsessed over?

Ryan: One of the little things people don’t notice is that Vision has eyelashes in our show, which he does not have in the movies. Another thing is that Paul Bettany has a very large chin, but Vision has a small chin. We got a lot of notes from Marvel: “Vision’s chin looks too much like Paul’s chin!” When you’re watching the show, you may not see it, but you feel it.

L-r: Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany in ‘WandaVision.’ Courtesy Marvel Studios/Disney+

 

People definitely notice each time Paul Bettany’s human-looking character morphs into his true android self. How did you design those visual effects?

Ryan: In one of the black and white episodes, we did a transformation of Paul going from a synthezoid to a person and sent it to Marvel. They said it looks great but we want it to be cheesy and retro like it’s from the fifties. So we did a couple of versions back and forth and wound up landing on this very glittery I Dreamed of Jeannie kind of thing. It’s funny because usually, you’re not supposed to notice the CG effect, but here, we threw in a visual effect from the era and blended multiple [styles of] visual effects on top of each other.

There’s also an old-school vibe when we see voltage flickering across Vision’s face. What inspired that look?

Ryan: In the [1982] movie Tron, they would actually cut some of the film and expose the light behind it to get the effect. That’s the kind of technology they had back then, so we took a lot of reference from that, which was super fun.

Just to be clear, Vision’s beet-red head is computer generated?

Ryan: The only thing we’re pulling from Paul’s acting is his eyes, his nose, and his mouth. That’s it. Everything else is CG whenever you see Paul Bettany as Vision, with no ears.

Paul Bettany as Vision in Marvel Studios’ WandaVision. Courtesy Marvel Studios.

 

How did you create the digital skin to make the human actor looks like the superhero Vision?

Ryan: We’d receive footage of Paul Bettany wearing a bald cap, ears sticking out, and he’s got tracking markers all over his face and neck. We remove the markers with an in-house removal system driven by AI, because paintwork, especially track marking removal, can be very costly. Once we have a solid track of that CG head, we align the shoulders so it lines up properly. Then the animators go and create his jaw, his eyebrows, they knock out the ears, they smooth the skin, they’re adding these very fine panels on top of his cheeks and adding a gem on his chin. Everything has to be rock solid because if something starts jittering or not moving with his facial expression, then you lose the performance and that’s the most important part.

Matt: We’ve made heavy investments in artificial intelligence to get things done faster. AI has ended up saving the client hundreds of thousands of dollars and tons of time, about a day of savings per shot. Multiply that across 400 shots that we did for the show and it adds up to about 400 artist days that are effectively gone.

Vision likes to levitate. How did you pull that off?

Ryan: The big episode six Halloween scene, where Vision transforms and flies up into the sky, was probably our most technically difficult shot. The entire ground [showing a nighttime vista of suburban Westview] is a digital map painting. They put Paul in a rig against a green screen all done up in his costume and makeup. When he flies up, the camera rotates around him, but we ended up going full digital-double with the body, which gave us a lot more control. And one of the cool things about Vision is that his cape is entirely CG because a [real] cape has a mind of its own, the way it ripples. You can’t get it to act the way you want.

Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda and Paul Bettany as Vision in Marvel Studios’ WandaVision. Courtesy Marvel Studios.

 

I imagine you had an entire team devoted to Vision’s CG cape?

Ryan: Within our pipeline, we have a department that brings in the [background] plates, we have tracking, layout, animation, effects which is where the cape would be done, a lighting department, compositing. Each department has its own lead, so every small detail is looked at closely.

Ryan, how did you train to become the guy who supervises everybody’s work?

Ryan: l wanted to do something in the arts but I was also a computer nerd so I went into computer animation, took a three-year program at Durham College in Ontario, and loved it. Out of school, I did animation, motion graphics, visual effects — I’ve dabbled in everything enough to develop an eye for making things look good and understanding how to not make things look bad basically. I call myself more like a glorified generalist.

Matt: When Ryan looks at something, he can see things that the artists can’t see.

Ryan: A lot of it has to do with timing because every shot is based on reality – – until it’s not. Many times I’ll tell my team “That’s moving too fast,” or “It’s too slow.” If it doesn’t look right in the shot, you might have to cheat things for the camera whether it’s based on reality or not.

This article was originally published in The Credits.

Categories
Blog Hollywood

Talking Shop with Former Pixar Animator and 2021 Oscar® Nominee Erick Oh

Every year, one filmmaker takes home the CreativeFuture Innovation Award from the Slamdance Film Festival. This year’s winner is Erick Oh, whose powerful animated short Opera uses a single, massive canvas and an army of faceless, lemming-like drones to convey the full sweep of human society and history in all its beauty, absurdity, and horror.

Moving up and down a static, triangle-shaped backdrop that teems with tiny, anonymous figures engaged in activities ranging from farming to torture, Opera is a riveting, unforgettable viewing experience. Which is why we were not remotely surprised when, after receiving our own special prize at Slamdance, Opera was nominated for another little honor you might have heard of called the Academy Award® – in the Animated Short Film category.

Unfortunately, our grand visions of the two statues, CreativeFuture and Oscar®, sitting side by side on Oh’s shelf, did not come to fruition. Opera did not take home the Oscar®, but Oh was hardly disappointed. He calls the whole experience “like a dream” and marvels at the “roller coaster” ride of a film that was originally intended to be mounted as an art exhibition in gallery spaces. In any case, he is too busy working to reflect on the experience for long. The former Pixar animator’s VR experience, Namoo, is coming to Oculus platforms later this year.

Oh spoke with us from his home studio in Los Angeles, in a wide-ranging conversation that covered, among other things, the recent global strife that inspired Opera, his career beginnings as an intern at Pixar, and what it was like to attend the Oscar® ceremony during a pandemic.

Justin Sanders: Erick, congrats again on the Oscar® nomination for Opera. It’s a truly stunning achievement. I would have assumed the Academy Awards® are kind of the pinnacle in terms of a film’s festival run, but your publicity team informs me that even post-Oscars®, Opera is still making the rounds in film fests.

Erick Oh: Not only film festivals but exhibition spaces, too. It was actually designed to be an art piece in a gallery space and that’s still our goal even after all this craziness.

JS: That’s interesting. What compelled you to design the film for exhibition in a gallery space as opposed to where one would normally envision a film playing i.e., a movie screen?

EO: I designed both a theatrical and gallery version together. When I was making Opera, I started to think I couldn’t tell this story in a traditional linear narrative because I’m here to talk about, you know, history and human society. The scope of what I wanted to say led me to think that maybe this could be an art piece and not just a traditional short film. But I still always wanted to show it as a film as well, so that’s why we made both versions.

JS: When you say you “designed” both versions of Opera, what do you mean? Does it present differently in a gallery space than it does in a theater?

EO: Well actually, there’s not much difference. The goal is to provide the same experience whether you’re in the theater or you’re in a physical space. But different environments have different strengths and personalities, so I wanted to reflect those in the different versions.

So, for example, in the exhibition version, there is no camera movement – it is just a static pyramid that is supposed to be projected on a gigantic wall. So, a viewer would ideally walk into, say, a warehouse and come across this incredible, crazy sight extending up to the ceiling. The exhibition version is also a perfect loop, meaning the end of daytime in the film syncs up with the beginning of nighttime, so it can be repeated endlessly for as long as the given space is open. And then we can also play around with the audio and use the location of the speakers to make it a more immersive experience in a physical space.

On the other hand, in the theatrical version, you just sit down and watch it and then you’re done – so, it has a bit of camera movement and we added music to give it a bit more of an emotional arc.

JS: It’s amazing that what originated in your mind as an art gallery piece eventually found its way to an Academy Award® nomination in the Animated Short Film category. How did that journey unfold?

EO: [Laughs] First off, the Oscars® were definitely not part of our plan. By August of last year, we were, as I said, pursuing both film festivals and exhibitions. But because of the pandemic, all of the exhibition venues pushed us or cancelled us. What’s more, film festivals all went online, which was kind of challenging because Opera, whether it’s in a gallery or on a screen, is a piece that needs a big space. It’s not a piece you want to watch on a 15-inch monitor, you know?

I was really upset about this, so I kind of rejected some festivals or put them off until next year – but I soon realized that many of them may not come back in the near future. So, we decided to just roll with it and started more aggressively submitting to the fests. And suddenly [laughs] we were Oscar®-qualified and all we could say was, “What the hell is going on?”

That’s when everything changed for us and it’s just been a roller coaster ride since then.

JS: What was is it like going to the Oscars® during a pandemic?

EO: This was actually my second time nominated for the Oscars®. [Ed: the first time was as supervising animator for the 2014 animated short, The Dam Keeper.] Normally it’s like a marketplace – there are thousands of people and you know nobody there, and there are all these celebrities and stars. This time, it was just the nominees and their plus-ones, so it was an intimate, small party and it was really fun. I went there with my wife, and I was already friends with a lot of the animation nominees, so I didn’t feel so alone there. We were having a great time. It still feels like a dream looking back!

JS: What inspired you to make a short film that, as Opera’s tagline suggest, sets out to do nothing less than chronicle “our society and history, which is filled with beauty and absurdity”?

EO: I’ve been in the animation industry for about 10 years and I’ve always had this vision to try something new and to challenge ourselves as creators and also challenge the audience. Animation doesn’t have to be the way we’re all familiar with – I wanted to push the medium.

That was in the back of my mind in the summer of 2017, a tough time for everybody, politically and otherwise. The whole nation kind of split into two polar opposite groups, but it wasn’t just America either, you know? That was the same year where, in Korea, millions of people gathered in central Seoul and after months of riots and protests, our President got impeached.

For me, as a Korean-American, seeing my two homes so troubled was a wakeup call. I thought, “as an artist, as a filmmaker, I need to document this. The racism, the gender issues, the environmental destruction, the terrorism… all of it.” That was really the origin and genesis of our project, to talk about history and our society in all its joy, happiness, sadness, and terror – and how we are all in it together, living this life. And the message inspired the medium, I guess.

JS: How did the message inspire the medium? How did your goal to essentially chronicle the sweep of human civilization manifest in the film’s design – a static pyramid backdrop teeming with stories enacted by what are essentially stick figures?

EO: Coming up with that triangular shape was not difficult. I wanted a simple iconic shape as my canvas and in a way, I had to use a series of triangles because I’m trying to tell these stories of the different classes and sections of our society.

So, the triangle shape was one of the first things I came up with, and then it was a matter of trying to populate it with something that is both reflective of how I observe the world and that could resonate with a lot of people. Some of the aesthetics inside the triangle were things I was already doing in my previous shorts. I’ve actually been using the black and white stick-figure characters for many years. I made an earlier film using those characters and I do a lot of watercolors with them as well. I see them as avatars that can be used to tell a variety of different stories about the human condition.

JS: It’s an interesting juxtaposition because on the one hand, you have crafted this massively complex narrative juggernaut, and on the other hand, the delivery mechanism – an army of faceless drones – could not be simpler. Why do you think the stick figures are such effective vessels for communicating Opera’s themes?

EO: I didn’t feel like this was a character-driven story. I’m here to talk about the overall picture – what’s happening for everyone, all at once. So, I didn’t think it was important to showcase individuality in the figures. I went with a simple, basic design concept so that we don’t get distracted by facial expressions or personalities. We can just step back and look at our own reflection through these guys. They are like the Mini-Mes of who we are.

JS: As a writer myself, I’m fascinated by how you have found a way to weave together all of these narratives and stories in a way that is somehow lucid. It’s not just a feat of design and animation but of storytelling – how did you write the script for Opera? Or did you write a script?

EO: There was a writing component for sure but it was all mixed up because I knew the outcome would be so different from any other project I had done. It’s not a linear narrative film. There is no dialogue and no narrative through-line – and yet there are many narratives and stories if you look inside. There are about 24 different “sections” in the world of Opera, but that doesn’t mean there are only 24 stories – because these sections share and create new stories when working together.

Because I’m such a visual person, I really jumped into drawing sketches and thumbnails in the brainstorming phrase. It wasn’t like most films where first you write and then you conceive of visuals – it was kind of all at once. [Laughs] It would be difficult to even show my early sketches because they are a mixture of doodles and then some scribbles over here and some writings over there, and that’s how it went.

Eventually, I finalized one single drawing that was almost like a storyboard. It was one singular image of the entire pyramid structure with notes and sketches detailing what was happening in each section.

JS: That must have been some drawing. How big was it?

EO: [Laughs] It’s like 8,000 by 8,000 pixels in a Photoshop file.

JS: From farming to romance to torture, there are too many threads to cover here in detail, but one particular symbol in the film felt very resonant – a key that hangs in the air at the very bottom of the triangle. I found that image so powerful and poetic, but I’m curious how you interpret its meaning?

EO: Basically, the key is always there. It doesn’t go anywhere and nobody does anything with it. Then there’s a lock at the very top of the pyramid and they are located as far as possible from each other. And the sad reality is they will never meet. The key represents answers to all the questions in the world, and the keyhole is all the answers in the world. Those symbols are a way for me to explore this question: Do all the answers we have to all the world’s questions really match? Are they really the correct answers? All the things we think we know, can they be re-thought?

JS: You have said in other interviews that this was a labor of love for a lot of people, done in between other projects over the span of four years. Give us a little window into the animation process and how this all came together on the technical side.

EO: Opera was such a unique production because it was something I was doing as a side project while I had a day job. The first half of production was, like you said, a group of friends getting together and sacrificing their nights and weekends to do this. And because I was at Pixar, most of them were Pixar animators.

JS: [Laughs] Not a bad group of friends to have on board a passion project!

EO: [Laughs] Thankfully, they were really fascinated with the project and they were having a lot of fun, too, because it’s so different from what Pixar does normally. People are having sex, people are killing each other – [laughs] they were having a bit of fun animating all that.

Things started getting really visually complicated about halfway through the project. But then we were finally able to get some funding, from a Korean production company that is a passionate, open-minded group of artists. With their help, we were able to smoothly finish the rest of the production.

JS: Sorry if this question is too simplistic, but what is your day job, Erick? You’re an animator and a filmmaker of course, but how does that work manifest when you’re not making Oscar®-nominated shorts?

EO: For a long time, my job was just animation and storyboarding but for the past couple of years I’ve been fortunate enough to be a full-time freelance director. So, while I was finishing Opera, my day job was directing a VR piece that recently premiered at the Tribeca Festival. It’s a very personal story called Namoo, which means “tree” in Korean, that I was inspired to tell after I lost my grandfather. In it, we follow just one character all the way from birth to his later chapters in life. Like Opera, we did two versions, so Namoo came out as a VR piece in January and then we spent another three or four months transferring everything into a cinematic world so that people can watch it as a short film.

JS: Growing up in Korea, how did you decide to become an animator?

EO: I just knew from a very young age. Every kid likes animation, cartoons, and comics – but I was the little boy who was saying, “I want to be a Disney animator when I grow up.” I remember watching The Lion King on DVD, and there is a behind-the-scenes video where it shows a drawing coming to life, and that just blew my mind. I was like, “I want to do that. I want to be there.”

JS: Everyone has childhood dreams, though – you actually fulfilled yours. You became a Pixar animator! That’s the animation equivalent of an athlete making it to the NBA or Major League Baseball.

EO: When I got the job at Pixar, that was maybe the happiest moment of my entire life. [Laughs] I think I was even happier than when we got nominated for an Oscar®. Getting hired by them is still like a dream to me. It was so surreal. You can’t imagine how happy I was.

JS: How did you first get hired there?

EO: Like many students, I submitted my portfolio during my second year of college and wound up getting an internship at Pixar. The internship was about three months long and it was like a bootcamp – there were many interns there but only a few got hired at the end of it. [Laughs] It was like a survival reality show. It was extremely hard and I didn’t get hired, and, by the end of it, I was so tired I was almost relieved to have a break. But then two months later, they asked if I wanted to come back and I said, “Hell yeah!” [Laughs] So that’s how I became part of Pixar.

JS: What advice would you have for young artists who might share that dream of one day working for Pixar or another animation company?

EO: It’s advice that I also remind myself of a lot – at the end of the day, you are a storyteller. The message and ideas you convey through your art is important and everything will be designed and developed around them. Of course, craft and technique are important, too, but what’s more important is how you bring yourself into the work. When we’re hiring, we get tons of portfolios, but I am most drawn to people with distinct and compelling voices.

If helps to be an incredible artist and have a great skillset, but the candidates we like best are the ones who have something to say.

This article was originally published on Creative Future.

Categories
Hollywood Industry Interview

“Black Widow” Stunt Coordinator Rob Inch on the Art of Adrenaline

In her swan song as Russian assassin-turned-Avenger Natasha Romanoff, Scarlett Johansson fights her way through Black Widow (opening Friday) on a mission to destroy evil mastermind Dreykov (Ray Winstone) and his network of brainwashed female killers. But first, Natasha has to confront her equally ferocious kid sister Yelena, portrayed by Florence Pugh. (Some light spoilers ahead). Abandoned as children by their spy parents (David Harbour and Rachel Weisz), the now-grown Natasha endures merciless teasing from Yelena, who mocks her sibling’s signature landing pose for being melodramatically cheesy. “You’re a poser!” Yelena half-jokes.

It’s a rare case of superhero stunt choreography calling attention to itself, but once Natasha and Yelena set aside their differences, the sisters power through a globe-hopping succession of action sequences encompassing prison breaks, car chases, a relentless killing machine named Taskmaster, shower curtains re-purposed as garrote wire and an everything-but-the-kitchen sink aerial spectacle featuring dozens of characters falling through the sky.

Making the action pop alongside director Cate Shortland is Black Widow stunt coordinator Rob Inch, who previously worked on Wonder Woman 1984, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Captain America: The First Avenger. Speaking from England, where he’s prepping a new Marvel movie, Inch deconstructs Black Widow‘s most thrilling set-pieces.

It’s shocking to see Florence Pugh as Yelena slugging it out with Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha when they first meet in a Budapest apartment after being separated for 20 years. What was the concept behind the sisters’ knock-down, drag-out fight?

You hit the nail on the head when you say “shocking” because that was the brief: “Shock us.” We already know how badass Scarlett’s Natasha is through her movies, but this fight is our first introduction to Yelena. There was a lot of chewing and chawing between myself and Cate and second-unit director Darrin Prescott until it became about keeping things grounded so we have someplace to go [in the rest of the film] because we have so many more fights, and we wanted each one to have a different flavor.

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff and Florence Pugh as Yelena in Marvel Studios' BLACK WIDOW. Photo by Jay Maidment. ©Marvel Studios 2020. All Rights Reserved.
Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff and Florence Pugh as Yelena in Marvel Studios’ BLACK WIDOW. Photo by Jay Maidment. ©Marvel Studios 2020. All Rights Reserved.

 

There’s nothing fancy about the sisters’ fight.

It’s domestic violence with a little bit of an edge, isn’t it, with them slamming each other into the wall, getting dragged into the sink, being hit over the head by a kettle, and chucked into the door with breakaway glass. When the door accidentally went through the frame and through the glass, we were like, “Aw that looks so bad we’ve got to use it.”

And then Natasha uses a shower curtain to choke her sister into submission.

We wanted the sisters to end up on the floor together like we’re taking you back to their childhood. We figure out a small little bit of aerial stuff, which is a standard thing for Black Widow, but then we made it a little bit more organic using the curtain. That fight was the first thing we shot with Scarlett and Florence together. I would say it’s my favorite fight in the movie.

You go straight from this confined, intimate fight to a wild motorcycle and car chase on the streets of Budapest. How did you design that sequence?

Same thing, really, as the sisters’ fight: it needs to have levels. We start on the rooftop with a foot chase. Cut to downstairs getting on a motorbike and doing some really cool moves by this amazing street freestyle rider I got called Sarah Lezito. What this girl can do with a motorbike! And she’s doing it with a passenger on the back, which was pretty damn impressive with the bike drifting in and out of traffic. In the car, they get stuck in a traffic jam so the only way out is ramming their way out that, and makes it a little more organic. Pretty much all that stuff was all done practically. And then Taskmaster shows up in this bad-ass tank vehicle, which adds another layer. The girls are sort of sweetly driving in their car and suddenly there’s this brute thing pushing his way through, like a guy doing punk rock dancing in a ballet.

Natasha and Yelena end up at a train station where they slide down the escalator banister just like kids might do.

We talked through many different ideas but then we’d research them and see “We’ve done that before.” So this wound up being about actually getting the real girls, Scarlett and Florence, to jump on the escalator and slide down. They were so up for it, those two.

Scarlett Johansson has made nine Marvel films but Florence Pugh is new to action movies. How did you prepare her for all the fighting?

We had Florence for ten weeks out [before filming began].  She would drill and drill and drill and drill, and then do fitness training. Here’s the thing with any actor training for an action movie: They’re only going to be as good as the amount of time they commit to it. Both those girls are so good because they put in the time. And also, Florence had the confidence to lean on her stunt double. If there are moments in the fight choreography that are too difficult, we’re going do a wide shot where we can use your double and then we’re going to come back in and lean on these things that you’re good at. Having actors or extras who aren’t too precious [about doing their own stunts] shows a great commitment to the film.

(L-R): Stunt coordinator Rob Inch, Florence Pugh and stunt double on the set of Marvel Studios’ BLACK WIDOW, in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access. Photo by Jay Maidment. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

 

Yelena (Florence Pugh) in Marvel Studios’ BLACK WIDOW, in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access. Photo by Kevin Baker. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

 

Black Widow’s massive third act climax shows people free-falling through the sky as the villain’s airborne Red Room headquarters disintegrates miles above earth. It looks very complicated.

We spent six weeks on what we call “The descent sequence” and it was heavily pre-vis. There was live sky diving, there was wind tunnel work, traditional wirework, Robomoco as we call it, and visual effects as well. We morphed all those elements together.

 

 

What’s Robomoco?

Basically, Robomoco is a programmable robotic arm that picks up an actor by her hips and flies them through the air on a route that you’ve plotted. Then you digitally remove the arm. It’s a pretty cool piece of kit.

Did you bring back Scarlett’s frequent stunt double Heidi Moneymaker for Black Widow?

Heidi did a little bit of the re-shoot stuff in America, but our main stunt doubles for Scarlett were C.C. Ice and Mickey Facchinello. We had an amazing stunt team, all the doubles were great.

Up in the Red Room, Ray Winstone’s Dreykov character punches Natasha in the face, once, twice, three times. As a stunt that’s probably pretty simple to stage, but dramatically it’s very effective. What was your trick for making that fight work so well in the story?

It’s just down to making sure Dreykov felt credible. I’ve worked with Ray Winston before. He knows how to throw a punch. You definitely believe he’s credible. But it’s a funny thing. If you took away the sound from these shots, nobody would believe them, but when you add sound, you buy it straight away. Also, we’re working with two really talented actors. When you say “Imagine you’ve been punched in the face,” I don’t have to teach Scarlett Johansson how to act.

You started out as a stunt performer back in 1997 working on Titanic and before that, you jousted in a King Arthur’s theme park. Have you ever broken any bones on the job?

The ones who say they don’t have any broken bones have never really done any stunts. I had a nasty accident years ago doing a stunt on a horse. I fell onto my back and ruptured my pelvis in eight places. I was in the hospital for four months. So now I’m able to tell my stunt team, “I used to do stunts so I understand the pain you’re going through.”

Black Widow director Cate Shortland has never made a movie on this scale before. What was she like to work with?

Cate was very open to ideas. She brought these characters to life and then enabled others who were maybe more capable in other fields to get on and do their jobs. I’d call her a really good director.

Featured image: Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) in Marvel Studios’ BLACK WIDOW. Courtesy Marvel Studios.

This article was originally published in The Credits.

Categories
Hollywood Interview

International Women’s Day Profile: Director Tan Chui Mui

Pioneering Malaysian New Wave director Tan Chui Mui was on the final recce of her latest film, Barbarian Invasion, in a remote fishing village when the national lockdown news broke in mid-March last year following the World Health Organization’s declaration of the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. Her shoot was about to start in early April, which would be after the end of the supposedly two-week lockdown. But Tan was fully aware of the severity of the situation in China. She has lived in Beijing in the early 2010s when she was hired as an in-house director by renowned Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s company XStream Pictures.

“The shoot is all set. Do we want to cancel it? It’s most stressful when we can’t plan with all the uncertainties. But my pessimistic predictions told me that the lockdown would not be so short,” Tan recalls. She and her production team immediately left the village the next day and headed back to the capital, Kuala Lumpur, in case of any border closure.

Tan Chui Mui on set.

 

She knew that first, she had to let go of the foreign crew and cast, including cinematographer Wei Yongyao, from China, and Singapore action director Sunny Pang, who would also play the role of the martial arts master in the film. Then she made the tough call to push the shoot back to June.

Malaysia-born Tan studied multimedia in animation and film at Multimedia University. She directed several acclaimed short films before making her feature debut Love Conquers All in 2006. The drama, which follows a country girl who comes to the city for work, but her fate is sealed when she succumbs to a local guy, won several new director’s awards, including Busan’s New Currents Award and Rotterdam’s Tiger Award.

Tan is also an actress occasionally – most recently seen as a single mother of a teenage son in Jacky Yeap’s feature debut Sometime, Sometime, which she also produced. But Barbarian Invasion marks the first time that she appears in her own film, where she plays a washed-up actress who receives martial arts training for a lead role while searching for her own identity.

Tan Chui Mui in “Barbarian Invasion.”

 

Juggling both directing and acting on set, “is more difficult than I imagined,” she says. “My producer would call ‘cut’ for me and I would run back to the monitor for the playback. As I was getting in and out of character, it’s hard for me to stay in character all the time.” But she quips that she can use the privilege as director to choose the actors playing opposite her. Her co-stars include Pete Teo (Ghost In The Shell) and Bront Palarae (HBO’s Folklore).

 

L-r: Bront Palarae, Tan Chui Mui

 

Barbarian Invasion is one of the six titles in the B2B A Love Supreme project presented by Hong Kong International Film Festival Society and China’s Heaven Pictures. “Each filmmaker is given RMB1 million [approximately US$145,000] to make a low budget film with high quality. I’m happy doing it. I take it as a challenge and a game to go back to the basics, focusing on the story and directing,” Tan says, adding that her project, which is still in post-production, is expected to finish within budget although the pandemic has incurred extra costs from the canceled shoot.

Tan’s predictions about the lockdown were spot-on as two full months had passed (Mar 18-May 18) before it was lifted, and her production was not able to begin until mid-June. To better control the budget and maintain hygiene and distancing, her Kuala Lumpur-based office Da Huang Pictures was used as a location. The art department dressed it up as three different sets—a gym, an apartment, and a phone repair shop.

The shoot was split into two blocks: three days in June and another 18 days in August. Filming mostly took place in Bandar Chukai, the fishing village that Tan recced right before the lockdown, which is located in Kemaman, Terengganu in eastern Peninsular Malaysia.

Since international travel is not possible with the ongoing pandemic, Tan had a taste of her first-ever virtual color grading sessions, with Bangkok-based White Light Post headed by Lee Chatametikool.

“It’s all new to us, but still workable. The colorist who is in Bangkok is able to make the changes instantly when I tell him to make it warmer or give a bit of blue,” Tan explains. “The actual virtual sessions didn’t take up much longer time than before, but communications were longer and two days were spent on syncing up all the files between us beforehand.”

While she missed traveling to Bangkok for post-production—she did several projects there including her second film Year Without A Summer—the remote workflow allows more creative people to take part. In the past, only she could travel there because of the budget. But now, her producer Woo Ming Jin and her cinematographer Gwai Lou (he’s Spanish but based in Malaysia and goes by the nickname), could join her for the virtual sessions.

While Malaysia is currently in a new lockdown, Tan is about to start the audio post-production, remotely again, with Bangkok-based sound designer Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr, who is a frequent collaborator of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, including his Cannes Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. As ever, Tan is ready to keep moving forward, no matter the obstacles in her path, until her film is officially in the can.

This article was first published in The Credits.