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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
Interview

Creating the Wonderful World of Disney+’s “The Mysterious Benedict Society”

They met in an improv group while students at Brown University, and joined forces as screenwriters after graduating. Some three decades later, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi have racked up a noteworthy roster of film credits that include Destroyer, The Invitation, Ride Along and Ride Along 2, and Clash of the Titans. Their finely-tuned creative process moves from talking deeply through plot points to outlining extensively to splitting up scenes to write individually before reconvening to edit and polish — almost always while sitting in the same room, says Hay.   

Staying accountable to one another is also key to getting the job done and proved especially valuable in another, somewhat larger writers’ room they recently were a part of, for The Mysterious Benedict Society, which premiered at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival and began streaming on Disney+ on June 25. The eight-episode series, created by the versatile duo, marks their foray into television and had them penning dialogue and directions with showrunners Todd Slavkin and Darren Swimmer and other writers.

Based on Trenton Lee Stewart’s best-selling novel of the same name, and wrapping this past February after a five-month shoot in Vancouver, The Mysterious Benedict Society is a quirky, fun, and timely romp that follows four gifted orphaned children as they save the world from a debilitating state of anxiety brought on by a barrage of bad news. Emmy winner Tony Hale — as both Mr. Benedict, who recruits the tween team, and Mr. Curtain, who is behind the crisis — stars alongside Kristen Schaal and a talented ensemble cast.

The Credits chatted with Hay and Manfredi about adapting the beloved book, landing Hale for the lead(s), and working on the shoot from afar. This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

 

Your body of work is quite eclectic. What about this story, ostensibly for kids and families, made you want to become involved and adapt it?

Phil: At least for me, what really drew me to this was the sense of sophistication in the book and the sense of the wit and playfulness, and honestly the sense of addressing some really big things. We’re trying to tell a story about an age where there’s a plague of anxiety on the world that we’re depicting, similar to the world that we live in. This was a welcome chance to work on something that was coming from a different life force, you know, a very positive, very empathetic life force.

Matt: Yeah, the books are so full of joy and they’re never ‘kiddie.’ It treats kids with a level of respect and sophistication. And also, the kids are orphans or they’ve been abandoned, so there are a lot of very deep themes going on. There’s an undercurrent of stuff going through this lighthearted adventure. And we also like the opportunity to just be really weird [laughs]. It’s a very strange and weird and offbeat show.

 

Tony Hale. Courtesy Disney/Diyah Pera.

 

What are the challenges of creating content that entertains both children and adults?

Phil: We just inherently had a take on this material. We never ever looked at it as a ‘kids show.’ One of the biggest changes we made from the book was to create a very large parallel storyline for the adult characters, but again, the kids in the show feel very real and very clear-eyed. Some of the most sympathetic moments that these kids have is their ability to look at a world that is very stressful with a sort of emotional honesty and vulnerability.

Matt: When we sold the show, it was originally going to be on Hulu, and when we were moved to Disney+, which we were really excited about — we were already a few episodes in — there was never any pressure to change it to fit ‘the Disney model.’ I think that their vision for the show was definitely aligned with ours, so we felt creatively supported and it was just a complete positive in terms of landing at that home.

 

L-r: Mystic Inscho, Seth Car, Emmy Deoliveira. Courtesy Disney/Diyah Pera.

 

Switching networks mid-stream must have been scary.

Phil: It can often be very difficult to switch networks or switch studios along the way. The thing that was great about this experience with Disney is they just immediately put all their muscle behind what we were trying to do and accepting that it was — and loving it, it seems — that it was strange and offbeat, something that had just an individual character.

Were you regularly on the set?

Matt: We were not. We were watching from monitors in our respective homes because we were starting right in the middle of the pandemic and they were very limited in terms of who could be on set. As much as we wanted to be there, we had a fantastic, creative team with incredible communication, so we watched from monitors at home every take of every show and we would text up notes to the director’s assistant and to the script supervisor and we would be able to communicate that way.

Phil: It was a very unique experience to produce something this way. Normally, we would have been there. In many ways, it was strange being remote, but in another way, we could be there all the time. And interestingly, between setups, we could be in a production meeting for the next episode or looking at costumes for three episodes down the line. We did a lot of Zoom cocktails with Tony Hale that were wonderful.

 

Kristen Schaal. Courtesy Disney/Diyah Pera.

Let’s talk about Tony Hale. Why was he the one to play not one role, but two, as Mr. Benedict and Mr. Curtain?

Matt: He was the one. He came up incredibly early in the casting process and once his name came up, we couldn’t see anybody else. In the book, Benedict is a little older and we wanted a little bit more of a paternal as opposed to a grandfatherly vibe between him and the kids. We’re such big fans of Tony. He’s so, so funny. But what we love about him is he’s got a real soulfulness. He kind of exudes kindness and heart.

Phil: It’s very rare when you have that feeling, ‘oh, this is the person,’ and then of course what are the chances that we’ll actually be able to get him? We clicked with him right away. We were so grateful because it really is impossible for us to imagine anybody else in this part because he carries the values of the show.

Tony Hale. Courtesy Disney/Diyah Pera.

 

How did he go beyond your words on the page?

Phil: He really bought into the voice that we were bringing to the characters and to the show and very deeply connected with it, so we were on the same page from the beginning. But we had this ritual where the week before shooting any given episode, we would just walk through the entire thing with Tony on Zoom. It’s really fun when you get to this level with an actor, where it’s really microscopic, targeted, interesting things about a word choice, where to place a pause — it’s really precise. And sometimes those sessions were him asking us for more background on why things were happening, and so it was a very fertile time.

Matt: I probably would have said the exact same answer as Phil. But this cast that we had, it was such a pleasure to work with them, because their questions were thoughtful and precise. The amount of time they spent thinking about their characters and the questions they came up with were so much fun to discuss and go through.

 

This article was originally published in The Credits.

 

 

Categories
Interview Piracy

Insights from Industry Insiders with Diane Hamer

Welcome Diane, please introduce yourself.

I’m Diane Hamer, the head of BBC Studios’ content and brand protection.  I’m based in London but our company, the commercial subsidiary of the British Broadcasting Corporation (the BBC), operates globally and I’m lucky enough to work with colleagues across the world, particularly in our APAC offices. I grew up and qualified as a lawyer in Australia before moving to the UK to work in the tv industry, as a freelance researcher and producer, and later as a lawyer in private practice before joining the BBC. As the head of content protection, tackling the piracy of BBC Studios’ content sits squarely within my remit. 

Does piracy affect your business or that of your stakeholders? How? 

The BBC is well known for making great content, which it broadcasts in the UK on its linear channels and on its streaming service, BBC iPlayer. BBC Studios distributes this content globally, through tv sales, channels distribution and D2C streaming services such as Britbox, which launched last year in Australia. The revenue from BBC Studios’ commercial activity is returned to the BBC to invest in more content – it’s a virtuous circle.  

But as with all great content, piracy is a major challenge for us. While we strive to get our content to audiences across the world at a time, place and manner of their choosing, pirates do not play on a level playing field. They have no production costs, do not comply with regulatory obligations and make no payments to talent – the writers, directors, producers, set designers, musicians, actors, or anyone else involved in making this content. So they can get to market more cheaply and often more quickly than we can.   

And here’s the challenge: our licensees around the world – the broadcasters, channel distributors, streaming services and others who buy our content to show in their home markets – pay for exclusivity.   

Piracy threatens to undermine that exclusivity. This in turn can adversely impact the fees licensees are willing to pay to buy our content, which means BBC Studios has less money to invest in future content. It’s a vicious circle. BBC Studios is very active in tackling this problem – but every penny spent on anti piracy is a penny less spent on screen.

 

What do you think is the most significant impact of piracy on the creative industry?  

See above! Somehow, people still seem to assume piracy is a victimless crime. Far from it. The companies, and individuals, who are impacted by piracy are not some remote fat cats, but ordinary folk trying to earn a living, and companies with tight margins, and salaries to pay.  

Another factor, which I think is not well known, is the extent to which piracy is increasingly underpinned by organised crime. The Royal United Services Institute think tank, RUSI, here in the UK, recently produced an excellent report demonstrating how “audio-visual piracy is increasingly carried out by organised crime groups operating across multiple jurisdictions” https://rusi.org/publication/whitehall-reports/taking-profit-out-intellectual-property-crime. Those who consume pirated content should understand that when they do so, they’re helping fund this crime, and in the process are handing personal data and credit card details to professional criminals. 

What is the biggest challenge in the fight against piracy?

There are many major challenges – including technical and legal, as well as the challenge of perception. Technically, I refer to the ease with which television content can be copied and re-streamed across multiple jurisdictions, without the rights owner’s consent; legally, rights owners have to contend with internet regulation and enforcement that is not only fairly weak, given the scale of the challenge, but also inconsistent, in its application and effect, country to country.  

 In the words of a colleague from beIN Sports, this “has resulted in a parallel, parasitical, pirate industry operating largely with impunity”. As to perception, in a broad sense I mean the way in which piracy is regarded as a victimless crime.  

 In relation to the BBC, there is an additional challenge in that, in the UK, our content (which is funded by a TV licence fee levied on all TV owning households) is distributed ‘in the clear’, free at the point of consumption.  This gives rise to a perception, exploited by pirates, that our content has no economic value, and is free for the taking. One particular manifestation of this is in the form of the ‘UK expat’ type channel streaming services that sell subscriptions to the BBC’s, as well as ITV’s and all the other UK free to air broadcasters’ UK channels, all over the world.  

 The pirate operators who offer these services make bold untruthful claims that what they’re doing is legal; one service (subsequently the subject of a major police operation) even claimed to work in conjunction with the British Chamber of Commerce! This perception often means their subscribers assume they are paying for a legal service.

 

It was grimly amusing to see customers’ Facebook comments when a similar service was taken down by the police – numerous of its subscribers demanded to know why the operators were being so unresponsive when the service had clearly crashed – little did they know the individuals were currently being interview by the police under caution! Less amusing was the fact that many of these subscribers had, in good faith, paid hefty upfront subscription fees – never to see their money, or the service, again.

 

How do you think Australia is measuring up in tackling piracy? 

Australia has a sophisticated IP regime, which in principle offers appropriate tools to assist rights owners to protect their content. One such tool is the ability to apply to the court for site blocking injunctions requiring ISPs and other intermediaries to block access to pirate websites coming into Australia. This is one of the best available remedies against piracy, as it requires intermediaries – most of whom are legitimate entities with no interest in supporting piracy – to act against pirates when the pirates themselves do not comply with the law. Like in many other countries though, such applications are expensive and court processes never move as quickly as the pirates can. 

I think a fruitful area for development in Australia would be around criminal enforcement. The UK has a dedicated IP crime taskforce (PIPCU – Police Intellectual Property Crimes Unit) which has proved hugely effective in tackling all manner of IP crime – from fake car airbags and fake batteries to IPTV piracy. Although IP crime falls within the mandate of the Australian Federal Police, as far as I am aware, there is no dedicated unit within the AFP that specifically tackles this. IP crime is such a complex and vast subject that I think there are real benefits to having it tackled by a dedicated and specialist force. 

What are you watching and recommending to friends at the moment 

There is such a lot of good telly at the moment – I am spoiled for choice! The BBC has had some really strong drama and documentary over the last year or so – Line of Duty (obviously!), The Serpent (a true crime drama about a serial killer murdering westerners on the south east Asian hippie trail in the 1970s and starring the brilliant Tahar Rahim, who also played the protagonist in The Mauritanian), Pursuit of Love (based on the Nancy Mitford novel and starring Lily James, Dominic West and Andrew Scott), Time (written by Jimmy McGovern, it is a very grim portrayal of prison life, with Sean Bean and Stephen Graham). Adam Curtis’ series of documentary films, Can’t Get You Out of My Head, described as an “emotional history of the modern world”, was extraordinary. Going off brand, I absolutely loved Schitt’s Creek (who doesn’t?) and Call My Agent. 

This article was originally published in Content Cafe

Categories
Interview Piracy

For Hollywood studios, anti-piracy begins with distribution agreements

Piracy Monitor visited with Chris Odgers, who worked in Business Technology roles for 20+ years at Warner Bros. and later with WarnerMedia, and who is presently an industry consultant.

We all know that ‘content owners care about piracy.’ But the concerns of content owners and rights-holders that want to protect their content against theft are quite different from the concerns of distributors and online video providers who want to minimize churn and theft of service.

And among content providers, the concerns of Hollywood studios are different from those of broadcasters, sports leagues and event promoters, which in turn are different from one another. Even if they may apply similar technologies to the problem, their priorities and their technology mix will differ.

Earlier is more valuable

As original content is their lifeblood, and because for them the content lifecycle begins at the lens and not in a headend or on a network, the studios focus their content protection and anti-piracy efforts on production, pre-release, and the early days of release. “The later in the release window a movie is, the less it is worth,” said Mr. Odgers.

Setting ground rules

Distribution agreements serve to ensure that licensed content can be protected as intended. At Warner Bros., Mr. Odgers ran a group responsible for reviewing licensee’s distribution technology and the language in licenses that specified how to protect the content from the licensee’s backend to the consumer. His team also collaborated with Warner’s anti-piracy legal group. While ‘protecting the studios’ may conjure images of movie theatres and camcording, his group was responsible for non-theatrical distribution, such as airline and hotels, as well as films and episodic TV programming distributed via physical media, the Internet, and pay and free television channels. He also collaborated with studio personnel that helped secure content production.

Establishing lines of demarcation

License agreements establish baseline distribution and usage parameters that are quantifiable, measurable and repeatable. Because legal and business teams don’t have sufficient technical background, they don’t always know the technological frameworks necessary to implement a business model in a working service. “Our job was to vet agreements to make sure that the technical language was aligned with the business and legal terms the licensee needed to comply with,” said Odgers.

Establishing constraints

Distribution constraints are sometimes specific to the form of distribution. In a rental agreement, for example, the license would limit the number of simultaneous playable copies. For a subscription service, there would be a limit on the number of simultaneous streams in order to minimize the chance that a subscriber was sharing their password with their hundred closest friends.

If a licensee operates a service in multiple territories, the agreement might specify availability of certain programming across territories. For example, while ‘Territory A’ content can be accessed in Territory A, there may be limitations on accessing some of that content in Territory B.

Timing, genre and advertising present additional constraints. Consider a TV program that’s released on demand at 9pm on the US East coast, which would be 6pm on the West coast. The license may allow the content to be accessed on-demand immediately after being first broadcast. However, 9PM on the US East Coast would be 6PM on the US West Coast, so access in more westerly time zones would need to be prevented until after the show aired in those time zones.

Sports programming is often subject to blackout rules which require fine-grained geo-filtering. For ad-supported content, programs must be presented with the right advertising for a given territory, at the right time, and this may differ depending on the user’s device.

Identifying instances of piracy

“Without being specific to the practices of any particular media company, and no matter whether it’s high-priced pay-per-view programming or direct-to-digital movie releases; session-based watermarks are important,” said Mr. Odgers. If very early window movies are made available to consumers, the distributor may be required to apply a specific mark that ties the content to a specific rental – and if a particular copy is found ‘in the wild’, it provides supporting evidence if a studio decides to pursue legal action.

In pay TV, a watermark from the set top box being used by a pirate can be determined very quickly and the operator can respond by turning off the smartcard in the box, in addition to perhaps pursuing an action later. Being able to respond quickly is vital during a program which only has value as it is happening, such as a sports broadcast.

Coloring within the lines

With clear boundaries of acceptable use drawn and some knowledge of where infringement is most likely to occur, it’s easier for a rights-holder or a distributor to determine when the line has been crossed.

This article was originally published in Content Café.

Categories
Industry Interview Piracy

Screens & Cinemas: Resilience Through Uncertainty

The conversation focused on the state-of-affairs within the Indian cinema exhibition sector, especially as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to disrupt businesses across the world. Mr. Gianchandani shares valuable insights on how the exhibition industry coped during the pandemic, and the new trends that have surfaced in its wake.

On the impact of the pandemic, Mr Gianchandani said that the Indian film industry saw a 96% drop in the year of Apr 2020 – Mar 2021 – a decrease of roughly 11,000 Cr in revenue compared to the previous year. There has also been additional impact on revenues in terms of lost concession sales, and screen advertising sales, he observed.

However, he said that despite these unprecedented challenges, cinema operators have showed resilience and capacity to adapt. To that end, he said, between October 2020 – March 2021, when theatres were allowed to open, cinema operators worked on ensuring that staff and cinema goers were able to return to theatres safely.

Further, he said that once cinemas were allowed to open between Oct 2020 to Mar 2021, they faced new challenges like lack of new film content from the Hindi film industry, which forced them to focus on promoting regional and foreign language films. He expressed hope in the fact that even small budget regional content like ‘Jathi Ratanalu’ performed well in limited capacity screenings. Cash and liquidity management, crucial in these uncertain times, was key and the team at PVR succeeded in doing that, he added.

In addition, he said that cinema operators, including PVR, also actively pursued seeking support from the government – in terms of convincing them to permit cinemas to reopen, and to provide them with relief measures. This was done to ensure the industry was supported and could come back to a recovery process at the earliest.

Regarding the issue of piracy, he said that since it is the number one challenge faced by exhibitors in terms of revenue loss, the sector would be eager to see the regulatory environment become stricter, and to see incidents of piracy dealt with in a more stringent manner.

He mentioned that the Multiplex Association of India (MAI), along with content suppliers and studio partners, is committed to running anti-piracy campaigns in cinemas, ensuring that all precautions are undertaken, and remedial measures are in place in case of an incident of piracy is reported.

As for growth of screen density, he said that pre-Covid-19, a growth of about 350-500 screens per year was recorded. However, he continued, that due to the pandemic, the number of screens added this year would only be roughly 60-70 screens. In terms of bringing back pre-Covid-19 levels of overall growth, he opined that exhibitors’ efforts will begin to show results by 2023.

However, he believes that dealing with retail infrastructure will continue to be a challenge for the sector in the coming years, and dealing with the impact of Covid-19 will be an added challenge. He observed that for accelerating growth, help from the government in terms of investor-friendly policies and schemes would greatly benefit the sector.

In terms of the growth of OTT services and their impact on theatres, he said, “Though streaming platforms are great entertainment formats, there was and continues to be a need for people to experience watching a movie in a social environment, especially in times of uncertainty.”

On the role of technological innovations in audience engagement and enhancing the cinema experience, he mentioned that Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), Glassless 3D, and 4D experiences will play a key role.

Continuing, he said that cinemas are also investing in enhancing essential digitisation services like WebInApps, and creating leverage with the help of digital marketing. For instance, he said, digital marketing plays a vital role in engaging PVR’s 2 Cr royalty members. He also touched upon PVR’s experiments with smaller personalised experiences for moviegoers like mobile-free screenings, wherein patrons leave their mobile phones outside the theatre to have a passive experience, surrendering completely to the art.

One concept he sees gaining traction in the near future is that of boutique cinemas. Though beginning as a reaction to Covid-19, he expects to see the premium movie-going experience becoming a norm.

For more insights on the matter, view our video interview with Mr. Gianchandani.

 

Categories
Industry Interview

Animate, Elevate, Anticipate

The animation & VFX industry has been at the prime intersection of technology and content for several decades. Innovations in the space often outpace the rate of adaptation.

Creative First is delighted to announce a conversation with Biren Ghose, animation evangelist for India and Country Head, Technicolor, India – one of the largest players, in the world, in the animation and VFX industry.

Biren shares, in the conversation, his experience, expertise and views on the current landscape and future trajectory of a growing $270 billion industry. From the economics to the operations to policy that impacts the industry, the conversation is an enlightening one for not just existing players in the business but also for those looking to take the step into the wonderful world of animation and VFX.

With the lens focussed on the local Indian market, Biren shares how India, in relative to growing markets, still an underserved and nascent market for animation and VFX. Unlike traditional films, where geographical and cultural differences create barriers in relatability, animation circumvents them. A cartoon character for example has global adaptability.

The same characters and broad stories being presented in different languages still retain as much relatability in India as they do in Japan or New York and that’s the beauty of animation. 

Interestingly, the global adaptability translates not just to visual media but to a broader, and highly scalable potential – lifestyle and branding built around content. Animation and VFX based enterprises see content account for only a percentage of total revenue that their developers generate. Merchandising, licensing, events result in significantly higher revenue generation for these properties than traditional film. Take any character from the Marvel or DC Universe, or even Pokemon for that matter – the revenue is a gigantic cumulation of cartoons, movies, television shows, video games, mobile games, t-shirts, action figures, comic books – you get the idea. The list goes on.

The potential of an idea in the space that can find the perfect combination for creativity, technology and marketing is unfathomable. 

On the subject of the process and creativity, Biren stresses on the complexity of not just crafting the perfect story but also executing it. Each frame requires 14 highly developed skills working in tandem to create something of note. These 14 processes are executed with cutting edge technology. Animation extends to advertising and the video game industry as well. Biren highlights, that animation is a medium for kids is a common misconception perhaps led by the traditional and very early days, of the industry . Video games today are a huge market for adults as well and this is simply the result of content being developed to serve their needs. Not to mention that gaming has in the last decade transitioned into revenue generators for individual gamers as well. And not just gaming tournaments but also by monetising “viewers” of online gaming sessions – a form of content consumption growing at a rapid pace.

Shifting gears to policy and education, Biren makes a pertinent point on the current state of affairs by sharing an anecdote. Surprisingly, he highlights that art schools in India don’t use digital tools. Ironic, since the primary tool in the industry, which these students hope to join, is an iPad.

Biren also speaks of the evolution of ABAI – and the  development of a more inclusive AVGC – the animation, visual effects, gaming  and comics industry which is now the governments nodal body that provides grants to the industry. With the AVGC, Biren has now led an effort that originally started with 7 colleges, is now at 27 and has a vision to encompass 200 where digital tools are integrated into the curriculum so students aren’t faced with a difficult transition while entering the professional workspace.

Biren has also been a huge proponent of gender diversity and inclusion of women in the industry. His vision is to have 1000 women as part of the Technicolor family in the near future.

To sum things up, Biren sees a huge growth in the sector with policy and efforts aligning to support the industry. View the video for the details of the conversation .

 

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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.

Categories
Interview

Art Director Daniel Lopez Muñoz on Finding Pixar’s “Soul”

Once again Pixar tackles the subjects of the meaning of life, fearlessness in the face of change, synchronicity, and inspiration in their new film Soul. It’s the first time, however, that they have centered the story on a Black man, that of middle school band teacher and jazz pianist Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx). Daniel Lopez Muñoz has worked in such diverse roles for Pixar as a character designer for Up and Coco, color script artist for Finding Dory, production designer for The Good Dinosaur, and visual development artist for Monsters University. On Soul, he is credited as the character art director. The Credits spoke to Muñoz about how he influences the look and style of the lead character in Pixar’s most ambitious film to date.

On IMDB you are listed as character art director for Soul. Titles can mean different things at Pixar. What did your job entail? 

It does tend to differ from production to production. To give you a little bit of history on my participation on Soul, the film had a core team, and I came on through the request of Pete Docter to try to find Joe Gardner, the main character of the film. There are a number of artists that came in early on in the process to try to get different perspectives for the look of the character.

Can you point to several aspects of Joe’s character that you had a hand in? 

Early on, we tried different approaches. At one time he was a shorter, stockier guy. We spent a lot of time looking at jazz artists from the mid-twentieth century, to try to grasp some inspiration of a personality from famous jazz musicians like Monk, for example. We tried that, but what succeeded was when we turned to something more familiar. There was something about Pete Docter’s persona that attracted me to a taller, loose, lanky body. I thought Pete must have gone through life trying to fit into places because he’s so tall, but also seeing so much. Joe is a guy who is thinking of what’s on the horizon, what’s beyond the life that he has currently because he wants to reach further. So we thought it would be cool if he towered over people, and had his heads in the clouds most of the time when thinking about what his life could be. But also it would be fun for a character like 22 to inhabit this body that has to maneuver through a crowded city like New York. We didn’t want him to be a handsome man, we wanted him to feel more like an everyday Joe, hence the name. He had to have some imperfections that would make overcoming them that much more interesting. We imagined him having been the awkward kid, trying to play with the cool kids. We gave him a long back and a belly. He’s middle-aged. He’s almost past his prime, and he’s trying to make it in the jazz world, so that has to be apparent from the moment you first see the character, and that’s something we wanted to make sure the audience understands right away.

Disney and Pixar’s “Soul” introduces Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx), a middle-school band teacher. When he gets the chance of a lifetime to play with Dorothea Williams (voice of Angela Bassett) at the best jazz club in town, he believes his life is finally going to change. ©2020 Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved.

He really has a jazz pianist’s fingers. There had to be conversation and consideration around that. 

Oh yes, that was actually very important, because these hands were going to be onscreen in close-up. Basically, it’s the working tool of this artist, so it was important to give them enough character that they could be on the big screen. More important for us is they would also feel like the hands of a true African-American pianist. We looked at and studied nearly every famous jazz musician, and studied the way the fingernails are different. We wanted to make sure we were true to the way Joe should be, including the length of his fingers. There were a number of pianists we studied, and we put up their pictures for reference, both contemporary and from the past. Then we did a lot of drawings to guide the animators.

Joe Gardner (voice of Jamie Foxx) © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

There is such a wide variety of Black and Brown skin represented in the characters of Soul. How did you support and help foster that? 

We were very keen on representing a wide variety of skin tones and of people and mixes of people of color, because in New York you have the folks that immigrated from the North and the South, and started a whole Harlem Renaissance from the great migration, but there are also lots of people that came from the Caribbean, and there are lots of Latin influences as well, so that gives you a really great range of skin tones. For Joe, I wanted to inspire artists with what I learned from studying Harlem Renaissance artists of the 20th century. There are some great painters that were really bold with color, and what I learned from studying those paintings was that in order to create the various African American Black skin tones, you actually have to mix a number of different solid colors. I found that so interesting, because it’s like it meant including every color. You get different browns out of mixing yellows and greens and reds and blues. We wanted the picture to feel real, but certainly in animation you can get away with more pushed looks. I wanted to inspire the artists to bring some of that richness into the skin of Joe, so that it has that playfulness, and that variety that I saw represented in those paintings.

Disney animator Milt Kahl’s influence can be seen in the way Joe seems inspired by Roger from 101 Dalmatians, but the influence of British illustrator Ronald Searle can be seen in the character designs as well. 

It’s so great that you noticed that. I haven’t actually discussed that with anybody when I was designing Joe. You have the character Roger in 101 Dalmatians and he is obviously a very classic, white character from a Disney film, but I really wanted to find a new character that could live on the way that character did, so there are certainly some influences there, but the artist I really narrowed my sights on was Searle. He had an incredible eye for representing people’s personalities and their interior persona onto a caricature in a wonderful, masterful way. He hadn’t done that many representations of people of color. Most of his work is of the white people surrounding him in England. We got inspiration from him, but had to find our own way, thinking of his shapes and angles, in creating the diverse characters in the New York cityscape.

The characters in this story are so well developed in both personality and look, and it makes a big difference in connecting to Soul.

I can remember the time in my career when it was very important as an artist to get some interesting shapes on the page, but that’s a given now. What’s more important now is to capture the essence or the soul. If we’ve done our work correctly with this film, people will hopefully say that that we were able to find a connection and a familiarity with the characters, and that they felt like people they knew from their own lives. That would be a wonderful response.

Soul streams on Disney+ starting on December 25th.

This article was originally published in The Credits

Categories
Industry Interview

Lights, Camera, Action … The Show Must Go On

Categories
Interview

Madison Hamburg on His One-Of-A-Kind HBO Doc “Murder on Middle Beach”

As the title suggests, Murder on Middle Beach, the four-part HBO documentary, revolves around a tragedy. On March 3, 2010, Barbara Hamburg was found stabbed to death outside her home in Madison, Connecticut, an unassuming beachfront town. An unlikely victim, police were unable to find a suspect. But what makes this unsolved murder story even more compelling is that it is being told by Madison Hamburg, Barbara’s son.

Madison was 18 years old at the time and a film student in college. Ultimately, he decided to make a documentary about his mother. He spent years interviewing his father, sister, aunt, other relatives, and law enforcement searching for answers about who his mother was and why she was killed. What he ultimately discovers is how little he knows about his family.

 

Framing this unsettling sojourn is a haunting title sequence that sets the tone for what’s to come. As James Lavino’s eerie theme plays, the camera pivots upward past a series of miniatures buried deep within the earth. In total, five unique dioramas detail the story arc. Intermixed are jarring flash cuts of family photos and home movies. The shot finishes on a model recreation of the house where the murder took place.

“I have a habit of skipping title sequences and wanted to create something that was more a storytelling element than a backdrop for credits,” says Hamburg. “There was intention behind every minute detail of this sequence, down to the color, shot design, and even the clothes that the subjects are wearing.”

The model for the opening was created by Thomas Doyle, an artist known for his striking miniatures. His work has appeared in galleries around the world and graced the pages of The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Time. Hamburg originally reached out to Doyle to explore the idea of using miniatures to recreate scenes that couldn’t be captured on film.

Murder on Middle Beach. Mock Up Painting. Courtesy Thomas Doyle/HBO.

“He got in touch with me because he liked my work and wanted advice about what’s possible — get the lay of the land,” remembers Doyle. “It certainly sounded like a great project. So by the end of the call, we were talking about going forward and working together.”

Concluding that recreations weren’t feasible, Hamburg conceived the idea of building a title sequence around miniatures.

“We wanted to parallel this overarching theme of duality between the outward ‘American idyllic’ setting and the darkness that lay beneath, prevalent throughout all of the major story arcs,” continues Hamburg. “Miniaturizing helped to push that idea, especially when it is done with such detail that it blurs the lines of reality. ‘Is what I’m looking at real or fake?’”

Thomas Doyle’s miniature recreation of the Hamburg house. Courtesy HBO.

For inspiration, Hamburg turned to one of Doyle’s works — Distillation. A series of miniatures depicting families and homes in various stages of disarray, it evoked the feeling the filmmaker wanted.

“Madison and his producer Solomon (Petchenik) put together a teaser reel with my work and the flash flutter cuts as a way to sell the idea. ‘It could look like this,’” says Doyle. “They brought that to me and I just fell in love with it.”

In an effort to draw viewers in, episode one opens without the title sequence. “Then, when people see episode two, they start to make the connection of things they’ve seen — like there’s a tiny birthday cake in the model that represents the first episode,” explains Doyle.

The initial plan was to only display objects. But it became apparent that the sequence would be more impactful with human figures. Model railroad shops, toy stores, and architecture kits are Doyle’s typical go-to places for figures. But since the ones here needed to evoke the documentary’s subjects, there was extensive cutting, sculpting, and painting to arrive at the Murder on Middle Beach miniatures.

All the objects were created from scratch. Doyle felt that they were so prominent in the story that they needed to be precise. “The team provided me with tons of background material, photos, the home movie imagery,” he says. “I spent a lot of time looking at that to recreate the look of her wedding dress, her computer, that mailbox. I focused on the details to that level.”

Thomas Doyle’s miniatures. Courtesy HBO.

Materials came from anywhere and everywhere. Any household item is fair game in Doyle’s mind. A lobster pot in the first scene is the top of a Chapstick tube painted silver. “There’s a lot of picking through the trash as well,” he jokes. “Don’t throw that away, it could be used for something.”

By Doyle’s estimate, the model stands over six feet tall. The dirt underground spans between four and five feet. He built it this past spring in his Westchester, New York studio. Separated by the pandemic, Doyle chronicled each step photographically and sent it to the production team. Together, they added and deleted pieces to shape what is finally seen.

“We wanted to lean into the feeling of nostalgia and familiarity,” adds Hamburg. “We wanted the compositions to feel inexplicably familiar, but not so much so that they would be discernible.”

“Obviously an artist in his or her studio is free to run off in whatever direction. In this case, we all had an understanding of what we wanted to create,” explains Doyle. “So it’s collaborative in that way and really wonderful to get feedback day to day as I documented — and then see this big thing come together.”

Murder on Middle Beach, Episode 2 Title Sequence from The Credits on Vimeo.

The final image — the house — was also built completely from scratch. “I wanted to recreate that exact house down to the mullions of the windows,” says Doyle. “Every piece of clapboard, all the siding was laid in because I wanted to be true to that house. I stuck to it very closely.”

Sharp viewers will notice subtle changes to the home as the series progresses. By the last episode, the windows are broken, there are holes in the roof. The trees are overgrown and the lawn is filled with rubbish.

Thomas Doyle’s miniature recreation of the Hamburg house, now smashed and absued. Courtesy HBO.

“The idea was to see it erode over time as Madison dives a little deeper into the family history and the secrets around that house,” says Doyle. “Some of the artwork I created evokes the sense of the house being a character. As you get to the reveal, you see the emotional toll that’s being taken on the house.”

Murder on Middle Beach, Episode 3 Title Sequence from The Credits on Vimeo.

The title sequence shoot took place at MoSoMos in Brooklyn. Knowing the pitfalls of transporting fragile art pieces, Doyle was keenly aware that eventually, his model would need to make a road trip. So he planned accordingly, designing it so that it could be broken down and packed in his car.

MoSoMos’ Bil Thompson served as cinematographer. Because of the pandemic, the crew was kept to a minimum. Doyle assembled the model, added the smaller pieces and decayed the house as needed. Hamburg was on hand to confer with Thompson. “Just to kind of talk lenses and make sure we had the moves right,” says Doyle. “I was really happy to have him there on set so he could frame things like the composition of the trees.”

MoSoMos’ specialty is stop motion animation. Thompson shot the sequence using a motion control rig. “Shoot raw images and then move the camera, shoot and move, shoot and move,” continues Doyle. “You get very high quality because you’re shooting in raw digital images. It looks like a fluid shot.”

Murder on Middle Beach marks the first time Doyle’s art has been featured in a TV series. He couldn’t be more pleased that it’s on HBO. The network’s iconic 1980s opening featuring a miniature cityscape was a big influence on his work.

“Watching that sequence as a kid was what made him want to explore the world of miniatures,” says Hamburg, remembering his first telephone conversation with Doyle. “At that moment, I knew, no matter how we incorporated miniatures into this story, Thomas was going to do it.”

Murder on Middle Beach, Episode 4 Title Sequence from The Credits on Vimeo.

This article was first published in The Credits