May 30, 2024

VFX pioneer Scott Ross, founder of Digital Domain

As a pioneer in digital visual effects, Scott Ross was instrumental in the advancement of VFX in Hollywood. He led groundbreaking work at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) and co-founded Digital Domain with James Cameron and Stan Winston. Scott looks back on his career, discusses systemic problems within the VFX industry, and possible ways to fix them.

Scott began his career in sound recording for television and film in the San Francisco Bay Area for a video production company, becoming president of the San Francisco office. The success of Star Wars ignited a space race for studios, and ILM became the holy grail for VFX artists. “I get a phone call from a headhunter who says, ‘Hey, Lucasfilm is looking for somebody to head up production operations at Industrial Light and Magic.’ And my head exploded,” says Scott. “If you’re going to live in San Francisco, you want to work at Lucasfilm. That’s how I got hired.” At the time, ILM was creating visual effects for Who Framed Roger Rabbit. His experience in the nascent digital video industry sped up the process, and by 1989, ILM developed a technique to work in a digital medium for making special effects. While Scott was at ILM, the company won five Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects.

However, ILM’s creative spirit began to wane under corporate pressure. “It turned into cubicles and whatnot,” says Ross, favoring a “work hard, play hard” environment. This philosophy fueled his decision to leave and co-found Digital Domain in 1993. “When I started Digital Domain, we’re going to play hard, work hard and party hard. And that’s the culture that I wanted to create. I think generally we did a pretty good job of it.” Digital Domain became a leading VFX company, creating visual effects for films such as Cameron’s Titanic.

The VFX industry is notoriously troubled, with visual effects houses underbidding on projects to stay competitive and creating dismal working conditions for employees. “There are certain companies that the only way that they could stay alive is by taking advantage of their employees, not paying them overtime, not having health care,” says Scott. “That really comes as a result of the way the clients, studios and the directors deal with the visual effects companies.” He blames a producer mentality that prioritizes squeezing VFX houses rather than fostering a sustainable industry. “The visual effects industry workers need advocates for themselves. Currently, they have no one fighting for them. They need an international trade association that changes the business model.” Today, effects workers continue to voice their need to form a union. The rise of AI further complicates the picture, with some fearing job replacement.

Find Scott Ross: https://www.linkedin.com/in/scottross/
Instagram: @scott_ross

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October 11, 2023

The Creator cinematographers Greig Fraser ASC, ACS and Oren Soffer

Filmmaker Gareth Edwards and co-cinematographers Greig Fraser and Oren Soffer embraced the unconventional while making the new science fiction movie The Creator. From the camera used, to how it was shot, to the visual effects, the team brought together film techniques both new and old.

It’s rare to have two cinematographers working on the same film, but Greig Fraser had a set date to begin prepping for Dune and could not be on location in Thailand for shooting The Creator. Gareth was the co-writer, director and camera operator on the film, and Greig knew Gareth needed support prepping the camera and lighting each location. Greig enjoyed the close collaboration with another cinematographer while shooting the series The Mandalorian and he knew having a second DP would be the ideal situation for shooting The Creator. Cinematographer Oren Soffer was brought in, and Oren, Gareth and Greig all prepped the film together, discussing in detail how Gareth wanted to tell the story. Once shooting began, Greig was tasked with managing the LUT and screening the dailies in a Los Angeles theater, while Gareth and Oren managed the day to day on set. Oren and Greig would talk every day about lighting setups, and they both appreciated having another DP around for feedback and ideas. With a collaborator, they both felt like working on the film was less stressful and it led to better creativity.

As Greig told us in his interview with The Cinematography Podcast in 2022, The Creator was shot on a Sony FX3. The FX3 is a very affordable, small, lightweight camera that Gareth was familiar with. It was easier for him to move around handheld, explore his shots, and have the freedom to interact with his actors. Gareth’s approach to The Creator was documentary-style, much like his first film, Monsters, but it was important to him that it still looked composed like a film. The FX3 could deliver a quality image at the level they needed for color grading and for visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic to add VFX. Oren points out that if a camera can deliver an image quality that looks like what you want, and fits the technical specifications you need, then any camera the director or DP chooses is the right tool. The images shot on the FX3 did have a lot of digital noise at higher ISOs, but this was a look they embraced for its similarity to film grain. The tools a cinematographer uses will continue to evolve and unlock more creativity. With advances in post production and lighting technology, how the image is made matters a lot less. The most important thing to consider is how does the audience respond to the film? Is the cinematographer doing their job as the storyteller? For his part, Greig likes to know about all the tools available to tell the story, and he wants to have enough knowledge about what’s possible to pass on to a director when he’s asked.

While shooting The Creator, Gareth would let the crew know the general story beats they needed for the day, but he would not share the shot list- it was a reference he kept for himself, so that he could shoot on the fly in an improvisational manner. As the operator, he didn’t need to spend a lot of time explaining the shots he needed to get, or rely on storyboards. Since the visual effects were designed after the footage was shot, the storyboards only acted as a reference. Gareth wanted all of the pieces, including the action, to have the energy of spontaneity. Oren was able to “set up the sandbox for him and the actors to play in. It meant lighting more broadly, but we would know which direction he’d be shooting, and augmenting it on a shot by shot basis with small LED lights or a helios tube on a boom pole. It was like growing a film in a pot of dirt in your backyard.”

For the visual effects on The Creator, Gareth chose to be very sparing in his use of 3D special effects., spending the budget only when it was needed to render detailed objects like the robots. As a big visual effects nerd, Oren says a key component to creating a sci-fi world like this is having a director who knows what they want and having very talented VFX artists such as those at ILM who understand what is needed without wasting time on 3D images when a 2D matte painting would work just as well. The intricate 3D modeling was saved for what is seen in the foreground. An on-set visual effects supervisor gathered information, mainly about how things were lit, that could be used for 3D modeling later.

For Oren, the whole experience was life-changing, shooting all over Thailand, in over 80 different locations throughout the country. He’s very proud of the movie, and felt very inspired to work with a director like Gareth, a maverick who’s constantly open to exploring new things. He was also inspired by Greig’s equal openness and creative collaboration.

The Creator is currently playing in theaters.

Find Oren Soffer: https://www.orensoffer.com/
Instagram: @orensofferdp

Find Greig Fraser: http://greigfraser.com/work/
Instagram: @greigfraser_dp

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The Cinematography Podcast website: www.camnoir.com
Facebook: @cinepod
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July 26, 2023

The Martian, Valiant One cinematographer Dan Stilling, DFF

With five different projects set to come out this year, Danish cinematographer Dan Stilling, DFF is finding fulfillment and pleasure in his career path. He’s learned that even when working with a larger budget, you can figure out how to get the best out of very little with the right people and the right gear.

As a teen, Dan played in a band and began to learn sound engineering. He got a job at a local TV station in Denmark as a sound technician and was inspired to become a Steadicam operator. After his training, Dan worked on a variety of TV shows. His first big break was working on the medical comedy Scrubs. He then transitioned from Steadicam operator to director of photography, which has informed Dan’s style as a DP for framing shots. Over the years, Dan has explored many different genres: documentary, commercials, reality television, dramas, and comedies. He’s found that as a cinematographer, you are asked for your opinion a thousand times a day, so it’s important to have an informed opinion on everything you’re responsible for.

Dan was a huge fan of Andy Weir’s book, The Martian. Once the movie started shooting, he was thrilled to be hired as the second unit DP. Additional photography in The Martian included footage of of the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. Dan shot the launch of the Orion capsule and all the background plates at Kennedy, including a beautiful time lapse of the sunrise at Cape Canaveral.

Dan’s film, Valiant One, shot in Vancouver and releases later this year.

Find Dan Stilling: https://www.dandop.com/
Instagram: dan_stilling_dff

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June 29, 2023

Jurassic Punk, Life After Pi, Midnight Son director Scott Leberecht

Director Scott Leberecht began his filmmaking career as a visual effects art director at Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic. His latest documentary film, Jurassic Punk, is about his fellow ILM effects artist Steve “Spaz” Williams. A talented artist, Steve pioneered computer animation VFX in movies, creating the alien effects for The Abyss and the morphing transitions for the “T-100” in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Steve’s most ambitious and revolutionary work for the movie and VFX industry was his work on the completely computer animated dinosaurs for 1993’s Jurassic Park.

Scott met Steve during his internship at ILM. Jurassic Punk was originally meant to be about the whole ILM ensemble at that pivotal time between The Abyss and Jurassic Park. But as Scott gathered the stories, he realized that he needed a main character who had an interesting arc, and Steve definitely fit the profile. Steve’s work on Jurassic Park had never been properly acknowledged, with credit for the visual effects going mainly to Phil Tippett and Dennis Muren. Steve himself was always a notoriously difficult, hard-drinking asshole who had trouble fitting into the corporate structure of ILM. Scott found it hard to shoot Steve’s interviews for Jurassic Punk, since his friend was at such a low point in his life. But Steve understood that Scott was trying to tell the story of what life can be like for a creative worker who gives their all, only to be left with little credit or money. Scott sees Jurassic Punk as telling two cautionary tales: be careful about innovating within corporate structures, and ensure that the people who create the art are properly acknowledged.

Life After Pi, a documentary short Scott made with Christina Lee Storm in 2014, is also a personal story about working in the VFX industry. Shortly before winning the Oscar for their special effects in Life of Pi, the visual effects studio Rhythm & Hues filed for bankruptcy. Scott had been working for the company for about six months when everyone was fired. The doc explores what’s been happening to the visual effects industry, as work is outsourced and it becomes a race to the bottom for the cheapest price. There was a very short window of time after Rhythm & Hues’ collapse where effects workers could speak their mind, even staging a demonstration outside the Academy Awards that year. Today, effects workers continue to voice their need to form a union, as the quality of effects work declines while studios demand cheaper VFX done at an even faster pace.

You can watch Jurassic Punk streaming on Amazon and Kanopy.

Life After Pi is on YouTube.

Midnight Son has just been released on Blu-Ray and features a soundtrack by Kays Al-Atrakchi

Find Find Scott Leberecht: https://www.jurassicpunkmovie.com/
Instagram: @jurassicpunkmovie

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May 17, 2023

Dead Ringers cinematographer Laura Merians Gonçalves

Cinematographer Laura Merians Gonçalves was extremely intrigued to work on the new Prime Video series, Dead Ringers. The show is based on the 1988 David Cronenberg movie, which starred Jeremy Irons as twin gynecologists. When she read the script for the series, Laura thought changing the genders of the twins to female gave the show more interest. She liked that over six episodes, they could explore a deeper, more complicated story about women. Laura shot the bulk of the series, episodes three, four, five and six.

Both Laura and DP Jody Lee Lipes, who shot episodes one and two, worked closely together to share ideas and find the look of the show. There is a restraint to the color palette, with the exception of red as a theme- just as in the movie. They used red scrubs and even red latex gloves in the operating rooms. The style of the show is very stark and elegant, making it easier to cleanly insert the twinning shots.

The biggest challenge for Dead Ringers was ensuring that the twinning for actor Rachel Weisz was seamless and convincing. Jody had previous experience shooting twin shots with VFX supervisor Eric Pascarelli on the HBO series I Know This Much Is True. For Dead Ringers, the twinning shots were done with the assistance of an old motion control camera system that actually used floppy disk drives. Anything involving twinning was discussed in advance and carefully planned and blocked. A body double, Kitty Hawthorne, was also essential for the twinning effect to work. Rachel would do rehearsals and then takes for side A, with Kitty miming the other twin. Then they would switch and do side B, with Kitty now mimicking the A side twin. The motion control camera exactly synched the camera so that the scene could be composited seamlessly together in post.

Laura found that with the real-time movie magic they were able to create, it was easy to forget that actor Rachel Weisz was actually just one person. She is a huge fan of motion control and doing things technically in camera, rather than relying on special effects in post. The actor can be invested in their performance as their character and they don’t have to have a face replacement or deep fake special effect.

Dead Ringers is currently streaming on Prime Video.

Find Laura Merians Gonçalves: https://lauramerians.com/
Instagram: @lauramelodygoncalves

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YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/c/TheCinematographyPodcast
Facebook: @cinepod
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July 20, 2022

Cinematographer Paula Huidobro on CODA, Pam & Tommy, Physical

Our returning guest is Paula Huidobro, who has been very busy the past few years shooting the 2022 Best Picture winning film CODA, the Hulu series Pam & Tommy, and the AppleTV+ series Physical, just to name a few.

Paula and CODA director Siân Heder knew each other as grad students at AFI, and have worked together on four other projects including the film Tallulah and the show Little America. For Paula, shooting CODA was definitely a different process. There were interpreters for each of the actors on set, and most shots had to be framed as medium shots so that their hands could be seen while they were talking. There could be few over the shoulder shots, or someone saying lines with their back to the other person. Siân Heder and Paula wanted to make sure that a deaf person watching the movie could understand exactly what the actors were saying. CODA is set in a New England fishing village, and Paula found it was a very visual environment to shoot, and extra challenging going out on a fishing boat in the ocean.

The Hulu show Pam & Tommy is about the 1990’s stolen sex tape of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. Paula served as DP for every episode of the 8-part series, and she watched Pamela’s film Barb Wire and Tommy’s Mötley Crüe performances for the references. It was hard work to shoot every single episode- she felt she never had enough prep time with the director, location scouting or script. She enjoyed working with director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya, Cruella) who also was the pilot director on Physical. He wanted to give complete freedom to the actors to move within the scene, so Paula would light the whole space and would start with her camera all the way wide, then push in for a close up. It was like a dance between the actors and they would explore the scene as they filmed it. Paula would shoot in nearly one take then just pick up whatever was missing. Pam & Tommy has a very aggressive style, using a lot of shots pushing in closer and closer, as the release of the sex tape and the fallout for Pamela’s career becomes an unstoppable freight train. It also has elements of humor and absurdity, and Paula enjoyed the novelty of shooting scenes with Tommy’s talking penis (an animatronic). Pam & Tommy had an excellent makeup and prosthetics department, and actors Lily James and Sebastian Stan are made up to be remarkable likenesses of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. Paula found the makeup to be so good that it wasn’t difficult to light the actors. Most of all, Paula and each of the directors wanted to be thoughtful in how they portrayed Pamela Anderson and how her world and entire career had been shattered by illegally releasing this tape.

Physical explores the troubled interior life of Sheila Rubin, an extremely unhappy 1980’s suburban housewife with an eating disorder. But once she finds aerobics, things begin to change for her. Paula finds Physical to be a very dark show, but she really likes how they portray Sheila’s inner thoughts. The character almost always says one thing but in her mind she’s thinking dark thoughts about herself or someone else. Paula would hold shots on actor Rose Byrne a bit longer so that later, her inner thoughts are added in voiceover. The show has great production design- a mix of drab and dark 70’s interiors with big splashes of 80’s color saturation on the set, especially during the workout scenes. Paula enjoyed being able to do some fun and playful things with lighting and camera work for the aerobics sequences.

Find Paula Huidobro: https://www.paulahuidobro.com/
Instagram @paulahuidobro

CODA is streaming on AppleTV+. Physical Season 2 is currently streaming on AppleTV+. You can find Pam & Tommy, a limited series, on Hulu.

Find out even more about this episode, with extensive show notes and links: https://camnoir.com//ep175/

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The Cinematography Podcast website: www.camnoir.com
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/c/TheCinematographyPodcast
Facebook: @cinepod
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Twitter: @ShortEndz

January 13, 2022

Greig Fraser, ASC, ACS on Dune, using digital technology, working with director Denis Villeneuve and director Kathryn Bigelow

Director of photography Greig Fraser says that cinematographers always strive to create images with dimension, so that audiences are able to experience almost feeling and touching what they are seeing. Film has always had the dimensional and realistic feel that filmmakers appreciate, such as grain and color. But with today’s advances in digital filmmaking technology, Greig understands and embraces using the tools that are appropriate to the project he’s working on, and the technology just keeps improving. For Greig, no matter what he’s shooting or how technical it can be, what draws him to every film project is the characters in the movie.

On Dune, Greig and director Denis Villeneuve tested on film and also on digital, but they didn’t like either look that much. They decided to take a hybrid approach: the film was shot on digital, then output to film, and then back out to digital, which gave it the look they wanted. Villeneuve was a huge fan of Dune the novel, and had a clear vision of what his version of the Dune story should be. He extensively storyboarded the film in pre-production, and they did not reference the previous Dune movie at all. During the shoot, Greig and the VFX supervisor Paul Lambert championed getting the lighting exactly correct with the blue or green screen background so that the shots and perspective would look the most realistic and there would be very little adjustments needed in post production.

Greig also talks about using the iPhone 13 ProMax to shoot a demo film with director Kathryn Bigelow. The phone has several camera options that make it cinematic, and he finds that phones are getting better and better to shoot with.

Greig’s next film is The Batman which will be released in March.

Find Greig Fraser: Instagram @greigfraser_dp
Twitter: @GreigFraser_dp

You can see Dune in theaters now, on Blu-ray, or soon returning to HBOMax.

Find out even more about this episode, with extensive show notes and links: https://camnoir.com//ep154/

Sponsored by Hot Rod Cameras: www.hotrodcameras.com

Sponsored by Assemble: Assemble has amazing production management software. Use the code cinepod to try a month for free! https://www.assemble.tv/
Be sure to watch our YouTube video of Nate Watkin showing how Assemble works! https://youtu.be/IlpismVjab8

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The Cinematography Podcast website: www.camnoir.com
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Facebook: @cinepod
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Twitter: @ShortEndz

October 27, 2021

Ruth Platt, director of Martyrs Lane on writing and directing the horror thriller

When director Ruth Platt first wrote and developed Martyrs Lane, it started off as much more of a horror film rather than a psychological thriller. She had the opportunity to develop the film into a feature from a short through BFI, the British Film Institute. In its feature form, Ruth pulled Martyrs Lane into a more unsettling ghost story that’s told from the point of view of Leah, a 10 year old girl, who lives in a large old house with her family. Her mother always seems very sad and distant, and Leah doesn’t know why, until a strange nightly visitor gives her a new clue to unlock every night.

The visual palette of Martyrs Lane has a timeless and impressionistic feel, creating an atmosphere of hovering between the conscious and unconscious world. The house Leah and her family lives in is a reflection of the interior and exterior world of the family. Ruth knew that finding the perfect “haunted house” was key, and they were lucky to have found the perfect location. With two inexperienced child actors as the leads in the movie, Ruth focused on trying to keep the lines sounding natural instead of scripted, and kept the kids energy up in between takes and setups. Because she and the crew only had a short amount of prep time for the movie, they had to creatively problem solve for a few issues and were able to do almost all the special effects in camera.

You can see Martyrs Lane on Shudder.

Find out even more about this episode, with extensive show notes and links: https://camnoir.com//ep145/

Sponsored by Hot Rod Cameras: www.hotrodcameras.com

Sponsored by Assemble: Assemble has amazing production management software. Use the code cinepod to try a month for free! https://www.assemble.tv/
Be sure to watch our YouTube video of Nate Watkin showing how Assemble works! https://youtu.be/IlpismVjab8

The Cinematography Podcast website: www.camnoir.com
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/c/TheCinematographyPodcast
Facebook: @cinepod
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September 15, 2021

Director Wyatt Rockefeller and cinematographer Willie Nel, SASC on the indie science fiction movie Settlers

The film Settlers is a blend of science fiction and western, about a mother, father and little girl who have created a peaceful homestead on a desolate part of Mars until another band of colonists invade their land and take everything. The girl, Remmy, must grow up fast under difficult circumstances. Her only friend is a small non-verbal robot called Steve. Wyatt Rockefeller both wrote and directed the film, which is also his first feature.

Wyatt found the perfect place to create the Mars setting for Settlers in a remote part of the northern cape of South Africa, in one of the hottest places on the planet. His South African producer introduced him to cinematographer Willie Nel, and the two immediately began figuring out the look of the film, using some images from Mars as references. Willie found that the dry reddish landscape of their location naturally informed both the look of the film and how the characters dealt with surviving in a difficult place. Wyatt and Willie were able to spend lots of time in prep, discussing how they wanted to shoot the film and what the story needed to be. When it came to actually shooting, it went very smoothly since they were each so familiar with the script and shots they’d discussed ahead of time. But the crew couldn’t foresee everything- they had to deal with rolling power outages in South Africa due to the heat and a crazy rainstorm that nearly ruined the set.

Remmy’s companion is Steve the farming robot, which gives Settlers one of its few science fiction visuals. Wyatt wanted Steve to exist as a practical creature for the actors to interact with, while keeping it simple so as not to break the budget. He also wanted Steve to seem like a real, functional piece of equipment that Mars settlers would need and use, so he based Steve’s boxy design on the Mars Curiosity rover, but with legs. Wyatt began working with the production designer, the VFX team, creature builders and the lead puppeteer William Todd-Jones in the early stages of planning and prep to create a puppet version of Steve with visual effects used for some of his more complex motions.

Find Wyatt Rockefeller: @wrockefeller Twitter
Find Willie Nel: https://www.willienel.com/ @willie_nel_sasc Instagram

You can watch Settlers streaming on VOD platforms and on Hulu in October. https://www.ifcfilms.com/films/settlers

Read more about the design of Steve the robot by the Settlers team: https://www.talkhouse.com/designing-steve/

Find out even more about this episode, with extensive show notes and links: https://camnoir.com/ep140/

Sponsored by Hot Rod Cameras: www.hotrodcameras.com

The Cinematography Podcast website: www.camnoir.com
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/c/TheCinematographyPodcast
Facebook: @cinepod
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Twitter: @ShortEndz