The Credits » 2012 » November Celebrating Film and Television's Creative Community Tue, 25 Nov 2014 15:45:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Taming the Digital Tiger: An Interview with Oscar-Winning VFX Supervisor Bill Westenhofer About his Work on Life of Pi Fri, 30 Nov 2012 15:30:00 +0000 The Credits spoke with to visual effects guru, Bill Westenhofer about his work on the acclaimed recent release, Life of Pi. Winner of the 2008 Academy Award for Achievement in Visual Effects for The Golden Compass (also nominated in 2006 ... Read More

The Credits spoke with to visual effects guru, Bill Westenhofer about his work on the acclaimed recent release, Life of Pi. Winner of the 2008 Academy Award for Achievement in Visual Effects for The Golden Compass (also nominated in 2006 for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), Westenhofer dished on what it was like working on Pi—from braving real storms at sea for reference points, to the artistry of director Ang Lee, and creating Richard Parker, that incredible Bengal tiger.

The Credits: How’d you became involved in Life of Pi?

Westenhofer: Ang Lee came to Rhythm & Hues (the visual effects and animation studio where Westenhofer works) in August of 2009 and he asked us whether a digital character would look more or less real in 3D. We thought that was a good question, so we took Aslan (the lion) from the first Narnia and he was actually pretty emphatic that we don’t touch a thing, just render it in stereo (3D) and see if it looks more or less real.  So we did that and we all agreed that it improved your perception of it.  It’s just one more cue that something’s really there. It was interesting because I found out several years later he really appreciated that we followed his instruction and didn’t try to sweeten the deal…in the four years [since the release of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe] we could have rendered it better. In addition to the lion looking pretty good at the time, he liked the fact that we followed his instructions and that was one of the factors in giving us the job.

Pi takes in bioluminescent sea

Pi takes in bioluminescent sea—Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Where were the ocean scenes shot?

As soon as Ang made the decision to shoot this in 3D, that more or less wrote off any chance of shooting this on the real ocean. If there was any doubt left, in those research days we did go out in a lifeboat and a raft off Taiwan to see if the actor (Suraj Sharma, who played Pi when he’s lost at sea) could get comfortable. Just shooting video was so logistically and physically challenging we knew that those hundred pound [3D] stereo camera rigs were out of the question. And also because Ang wanted to make this an art film, he wanted the sort of control that we would have to put in the skies and the water. So that directed us toward the tank. We looked at the options of the existing tanks that were out there. There’s one in Louisiana, there’s one James Cameron built in Mexico for Titanic, but there were two features that were troubling Ang. One was it’s not often that you have a film where you spend so much time right up on the surface of the water.  Three-fifths of the film was on the surface, so the water had to be really genuine.  A second was that a lot of these tanks had what we call a “bathtub effect,” where they put in a wave machine and the tanks work because you get rebound off the walls and the waves keep building and create a choppy surface, but it doesn’t look like the open ocean, which has directionality to the waves.

Director Ang Lee—courtesy of Fox 2000 Pictures

Director Ang Lee—Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Let’s talk a little about the relationship between a special effects supervisor and the director on a large film like this. 

It was fantastic. What was unique about this project amongst other projects I have worked on was when we got back to Los Angeles and Ang was addressing the crew, he finished his whole opening spiel with, “I want to make art with you.” I think that was kind of the resonant theme. Since this was all shot in the tank in Taiwan [the tank was built from scratch in an abandoned airport] in front of a blue screen, we were given a pretty blank slate. It was really up to the digital effects crew to come up with the look and the artistry for the water part of the journey. Ang is very authentic so we did a ton of research with this, even going out on a coast guard cutter in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in a heavy storm and getting reference footage. We had real tigers on set so we spent eight weeks with real tigers, studying their mannerisms, which was great. Ang appreciates symbolism, so quite often the directions I would be given for skies were, instead of “go get me a sunset,” Ang would say, “give me a pensive sky,” or a “melancholy sky,” so it would be up to us to go through our library of skies and pick candidates I thought would fit his descriptions and we would go over those and set that for the scene.

So you had to integrate the actual waves in the tank with waves you created digitally?

Correct, and in stereo, which was the frightening thing. The thought of blending the real water with the stereo [water] was honestly the scary part.  As the supervisor you have to act confident, but in the back of my mind I was wondering, how are we going to do this?

The technology has improved since Titanic, but it seems that water has always been particularly difficult to work on in special effects.  

It is. In the computer you think you have more control, but to make it look real you have to let the simulation do its thing. It’s still ultimately as unpredictable as the real thing if you are trying to wrangle a shot. I give a lot of credit to the company that did the ship sinking sequence and the storm of God. They were doing massive simulations of storms with 20-foot waves in a storm surge and still Ang wanted the ability to art direct this and maintain artistic control. They really pulled that off, to run these huge simulations while giving him that freedom to adjust.

In terms of the crew, how many people were reporting to you throughout the production period? 

There were about 1,300 people working on digital effects on this film.

The glorious Bengal tiger, Richard Parker, reacting to the flying fish—courtesy Fox 2000

The glorious Bengal tiger, Richard Parker, reacting to the flying fish—Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Let’s talk about Richard Parker, that unbelievably realistic tiger.

Well, he wanted the tiger to be a realistic as possible, with no anthropomorphization. There was a team of about 15 people who were responsible for building the digital asset, and that took about a year to fine tune and get it to match. We probably spent six or seven months just building the basic shape and getting the fur, then once you have the shots that we’re cutting up, next to you have to make fine adjustments until it completely matches. That’s a year’s time since you start working on shots, lay it together and continue to make adjustments. There was a lot of evolutionary stuff from what we’ve done with animals in the past and there were some technical achievements in terms of the lighting of the hair, in particular the way light comes in and bounces around in the soft white fur. There is something called sub-surface scattering and it’s difficult to render that. We spent a ton of time scrutinizing all the reference footage of the live tigers that we took. We had about a hundred hours of footage that we took of the tigers when they were in Taiwan and it was getting down to the tiny nuances of the claws and toes that the animators put in. We would review a shot with Ang and he would approve the animation and then when he locked the specific actions off, we would go and spend two weeks doing the tiny stuff. 

Was Ang shooting live action concurrently while you were working on reaction shots or reverse shots with the tiger, or did the tiger come first and then he built around what you had discussed?

We spent a year pre-vising the movie. We had the team sit down with crude animation and simple renders and he basically set up the film from the moment the ship sinks until they arrive on the beach, and we pretty much shot what we pre-vised. The pre-vis can be a tool and it’s up to the director how much they utilize it. He really spent a lot of time analyzing the shots so that when we got to set, we could show everybody this is what the set’s going to be, we could talk to the actor, Suraj, and say, “this is where the tiger’s going to be,” and everyone could see what was going to happen, which took care of a lot of the confusion that would have otherwise resulted. I also want to point out that Suraj was absolutely fantastic. I’ve worked with seasoned actors, and when you try to say, “there’s an invisible character here,” they have a hard time grasping it. He was trying to balance on a boat that was rocking back and forth, and you could even just say, “the tiger’s walking from here to here,” and you could see in his eyes that he was picturing it and selling his invisible co-star.

So you didn’t use a mock-up or a person pretending to be the tiger?

We did both. We did anything we could to help him. Some shots were simple and you could just say it, but if it helped to have him to have someone in a blue suit for the tiger, my animation director would do it. He earned his chops one day during the flying fish sequence, he was grabbing hold of a pole that Pi is reacting with and the bottom of the boat was filled with dead fish that we bought from the supermarket. He was in a blue leotard, sitting in rotten fish, pretending to be the tiger. He earned his credit that day.

Newcomer Suraj Sharma takes the title role of Pi—Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Newcomer Suraj Sharma takes the title role of Pi—Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Do you have a favorite scene or shot in the movie that you are particularly proud of?

I love the whale sequence; the jellyfish in there are really cool. But, I think my favorite scene is the flying fish sequence with the tiger. It just looks really stunning. There were times where we had to just completely replace the lifeboat because it made sense. I don’t think anyone’s ever going to notice that but some of those shots are completely digital and I think we pulled it off. What was cool about this was, we had done digital animals before, trying to make them as real as possible and then they’d have to get up and sing or dance or do something obviously fake. I told the crew, here’s your shot. This is a tiger, it’s going be a tiger. If you’re ever going to fool your colleagues, this is your chance. And I think they rose to the occasion.

Featured Image: Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) and a fierce Bengal tiger named Richard Parker must rely on each other to survive an epic journey. Photo courtesy Rhythm & Hues, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Other interviews:

Meet Scoot McNairy, one of the brightest up-and-coming young actors in Hollywood. 

Check out our interview with The Sessions director Michael Lewin, and find out the incredible story behind this film. 

How do you swap Gerard Butler’s face with a professional surfer’s so you can film a movie like Chasing Mavericks and have the surfing scenes impress everyone, even the professional surfers themselves? We found out when we spoke to Scott Anderson, Visual Effects Supervisor extraordinaire. 



]]> 1
The Credits Presents: Up-and-Coming Filmmakers on the Festival Circuit Thu, 29 Nov 2012 15:30:48 +0000 To the uninitiated, filmmaking resembles nothing short of magic. Actors transform into memorable characters, scripts morph into visceral stories, a movie screen becomes a window into another world. But for the men and women working just outside the cameraframe, ... Read More


To the uninitiated, filmmaking resembles nothing short of magic. Actors transform into memorable characters, scripts morph into visceral stories, a movie screen becomes a window into another world. But for the men and women working just outside the cameraframe, the process of making movies is a bit more scientific.  Details are essential, timing is integral, the perfect line of dialogue is well wrought–and, often, rewritten.  Making your first film (or your second!) can be a truly rewarding experience–but not without its fair share of trials, tribulations, and of course good old fashioned hard work.

During our stay at the Austin Film Festival, The Credits sought out two up-and-coming filmmakers, Derrick Sims (Come Morning) and Kit Pongetti (Stakeout), who brought their films to AFF for the very first time.

Derrick Sims has been making movies since he was 9, but Come Morning is his feature directorial debut. And he had AFF-goers buzzing well before his movie premiered. We were thrilled to talk with the Arkansas native about his ambitious feature-length film Come Morning, which tells the tale of a grandfather and son who, involved in a tragic accident, are changed forever in the course of one dark night in the South. Sims played the part of director, writer, cinematographer, and editor for the beautifully-rendered Come Morning, which he shot in only 12 days. Financing his film with funding from Kickstarter, Sims landed the finished project at the inimitable Austin Film Festival, where it debuted to acclaim and received a nomination for best feature length film.

Kit Pongetti is certainly not a novice to the film world. Pongetti is a gifted actress, singer, and writer, who’s worked on television hits like Roseanne, Scrubs, Gillmore Girls, and How I Met Your Mother.  But as Pongetti will tell you, filmmaking is a different beast entirely. When we caught wind of her directorial debut; the autobiographical short film Stakeout, about two teenage girls in the 1980s who spy on parties from the safety of their car, we just had to know more. Pongetti’s film is adapted from the screenplay, “Guy Spies,” co-written with Jessica Sheets, and is not-so-loosely based on the duo’s own high school ‘misadventures.’ Funny, witty, and poignant, Pongetti’s film is a beautifully-shot coming-of-age story that boasts some of the best 80’s getups we’ve seen in a long time. Stakeout debuted at the American Film Institute (AFI) Directing Workshop for Women Showcase in Los Angeles, where the film won two awards.

Check out our video above to see what it took to get these two uber-talented new filmmakers’ visions onto the big screen at a major film festival, and just how it felt to see it there.

For more information about the Austin Film Festival, please visit their website. Click here for more on Derrick Sim’s Come Morning, and here for Kit Pongetti’s short, Stakeout.

–Video by Daniel Tarr, DP: Austin Tolan

Featured Image of Filmmaker Kit Pongetti

]]> 0
Film at the Vatican Without Leaving LA: How Stargate Studios’ Virtual Backlot Is Revolutionizing The Industry Wed, 28 Nov 2012 15:30:50 +0000 On location shooting is a variable that can make or break a film or television project. It might be the difference between shooting a scene at Westminster Abbey, or at the neighborhood church. So when visual effects house Stargate Studios ... Read More

On location shooting is a variable that can make or break a film or television project. It might be the difference between shooting a scene at Westminster Abbey, or at the neighborhood church. So when visual effects house Stargate Studios launched their Virtual Backlot nearly a decade ago, television shows everywhere could hardly wait to use their game-changing library of virtual backdrops. From Vegas casinos to idyllic beaches, producers could finally green-light exotically ambitious scripts, without breaking the budget. And with a CV that boasts TV shows like 24, ER, The Walking Dead, and Heroes, it seems Stargate has sparked something of a revolution.

The Credits spoke with Stargate Studios CEO Sam Nicholson about the Virtual Backlot, revolutions in television producing, and how enhancing reality truly is better than the real thing.

THE CREDITS: Stargate Studios is known for its renowned Virtual Back Lot. Can you tell us about it?

SAM NICHOLSON: Let’s say you have a two-page scene in Paris, and the producers either tear the pages out or they rewrite it to cut costs–but that’s not what the writer intended.  We can put people in Paris using a green screen and the virtual back lot.  We go and shoot Paris in accordance with the script and then we put people in so it visibly looks like they are there, but the actors don’t have to go. What we’re trying to do is really use the visual effects and visual image-making process to save producers money and increase the creative options that a writer has when they think about a script.

But the secret to that formula is that you have to have an extremely efficient workflow from a visual effects standpoint; it has to cost about half of what it costs to go on location.

This sounds like something that has the potential to revamp on-location filmmaking as we know it.

We’re doing 22 series like that right now and a lot of them are series you would never think have virtual effects in them, like Private Practice and Grey’s Anatomy.  They aren’t big effects-related shows, but if the writers on Private Practice want to go to Malibu and take a stroll on the beach or be in some very expensive location, what we do is we go stage each week in Raleigh and shoot a couple of pages of blue screen and then we can put the actors in Malibu.

This is how I imagine they’d make films in the fictional world of Minority Report. When did the Virtual Backlot first take off?

Interestingly, in a big way, we started after 9/11 because none of the actors wanted to fly.  We also had shows like ER where the actors were used to shooting on the Chicago waterfront in the middle of winter, when it’s freezing. They’d be shooting all night long in nasty weather, and nobody likes that.

We found that we could shoot it in such a way with the virtual back lot that the directors would have complete freedom of camera movement. You can do tricks with exposure and focus where the end product actually looks better than what they had been getting in live action photography and on location.

Then we started building a library of immersive environments and we used it very heavily on 24. Now, we’re using it very heavily on shows like Touch. It’s a really great solution for runaway production because with the right level of technology, you can shoot right here in Los Angeles and you can be anywhere in the world you want to be. That’s a very liberating thing for the writers.

Some of Stargate Studios’ Handiwork:

Scene from Touch (BEFORE)

Scene from Touch (AFTER)

What is the most popular virtual backdrop requested?

Las Vegas is one that’s common, because shooting in a Las Vegas casino is very tough, but if you virtualize it, you have your very own casino on a green screen. The other one that’s tough is Washington DC because of the permits.  We did it a lot with 24 and NCIS, where they want to shoot inside the Lincoln Memorial or on the steps of Congress and you just can’t shoot there.  We’ve staged scenes in front of the Trevi Fountain, The Vatican; you can’t shoot at these places for a number of reasons.  The virtual environment really enhances the creative potential of the project but it also solves the financial problem for the producer, which is how do you get a bigger look for less money?

How has virtual location shooting changed the creative process of scriptwriting?

Writers can now reverse-engineer their concept based on the virtual environments that we have.  They’ll say, “I want a beach scene, but I don’t know where I want to play it,” and we say, “Well, we have Hawaii, Bora Bora, Malibu,” and they can actually look at the environment and determine what works for the scene.

How do you shoot the backdrops in the Stargate Studios library?

They are shot with multiple camera rigs; I usually shoot with 9 or 10 cameras at once.  We shoot high dynamic range. We shoot circle vision. We shoot super high resolution.  Our latest circular environments are about at least 20 times higher resolution than HD. We also do 3D environments, 3D augmentation, 3D sets, 3D set extensions and completely computer generated environments that are sort of real.

We try to use reality whenever possible but if you can blend it with 3D computer generated elements, you can do much more camera movement and it feels more real. Many times, it’s to say: look, we want five news helicopters up there or I want to see a bridge, but I don’t want that bridge. I want to see a different kind of bridge.  We’re definitely starting to get into more traditional visual effects applications and blending those with virtual back lot to ultimately enhance reality.

So ultimately, the virtual backlot provides infinite possibilities for shooting locales, is cost-effective, essentially good for the environment, and pretty much halts the threat of runaway production. Is it too good to be true?

You can shoot scenes at magic hour [the first and last hour of sunlight during the day, ideal for shooting], you can shoot scenes where you can control time and weather and the actors can work on a normal schedule. And the producers are happy because you can shoot about twice as many pages on stage as you can on location.  It works out financially, it works out creatively, and the audience gets a better product. Everybody wins.

**Feature image: TOUCH:  Martin (Kiefer Sutherland, R) and Clea (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, L) work together to uncover a shocking development involving Clea’s mentally-challenged mother in the “Lost and Found”episode of TOUCH, courtesy of Fox Broadcasting Co.  Cr:  Kelsey McNeal/FOX.
***Before and after images of Touch courtesy of Stargate Studios
]]> 0
Actor Scoot McNairy On Getting Into Character for Killing Them Softly, Argo, and Promised Land Tue, 27 Nov 2012 15:00:20 +0000 Scoot McNairy has been hard at work on some of the most highly-anticipated film projects of the year. In the last 12 months, he’s worked on Ben Affleck’s Argo, starred alongside Brad Pitt in the upcoming release Killing Them Softly, ... Read More

Scoot McNairy has been hard at work on some of the most highly-anticipated film projects of the year. In the last 12 months, he’s worked on Ben Affleck’s Argo, starred alongside Brad Pitt in the upcoming release Killing Them Softly, he’s top-billed in Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land, and he’s starring in Steve McQueen’s 2013 picture, Twelve Years a Slave.

Of course, that hardly scratches the surfaces of McNairy’s illustrious film career, which has spanned indie greats like Monsters and In Search of a Midnight Kiss to mainstream television hits like Six Feet Under. When he isn’t acting, he’s producing, writing scripts, and researching for his next role. McNairy snagged some rare free time to talk with The Credits about his incredibly busy year, tricks of the trade, and how he’s become one of film’s fastest rising stars.

THE CREDITS: Variety just named you one of the top 10 actors to watch in 2012, so it goes without saying that you’ve been busy. What have you been working on?

SCOOT MCNAIRY: As far as work goes, I produced a short for my buddy Jake Hoffman called Please Alfonso. I also recently worked on Argo, and Killing Them Softly. I got a small role in Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land and I did an independent movie up in Seattle, a super low budget movie with Lynn Shelton, who did Hump Day and My Sister’s Sister. Then, I got super lucky and got to work with Steve McQueen who did Shame and Hunger. I’m a big fan of Steve McQueen, and was really excited to learn more about his art and his installation work. It was interesting working with him because we both learn visually and artistically.

That’s such a diverse mix of films. How do you land these roles—do you seek them out, or are you solicited?

I used to seek them out a lot more so than I am now. Usually, the agencies just send out auditions—and of course, you’re not right for about 75% of them, but you still go to them all. I kind of stopped doing that about 2 or 3 years ago and thought: ‘I know when I’m right for something and when I’m not.’ If you’ve been doing something long enough, you can just tell when you’re not right for a part. So I like to take my time with roles that I am right for. Killing Them Softly, I auditioned for. Argo, I auditioned for. These are movies with directors who I have been dying to work with and I never thought I would. Usually, I just get the idea in my head—I really wanted to work with Steve McQueen, so I called my reps and asked them how I could get the chance to work with him. I just put it out there, sought out an audition, went for it and read, and then got the part.

(L-r) SCOOT McNAIRY as Joe Stafford, KERRY BISHÉ as Kathy Stafford, TATE DONOVAN as Bob Anders, CHRISTOPHER DENHAM as Mark Lijek and CLEA DuVALL as Cora Lijek in €œARGO. Warner Bros.

Do you have a favorite type of role you like to play?

I’m usually more interested in the script. I’ll read it and ask myself;  ‘If I could be anybody in this story, which character would I want to be?’ And I’ll go after that part.

What is your process like for getting into character?

Honestly, the process for playing every character is different.

I did an independent movie called Monsters, where the character was a photographer who was on the road all the time. He had no relationships, and was very isolated. So I went to Big Sur and lived in a tent—and it was so great. I camped out for two weeks by myself; I read photography books and war photography journalism books. I love doing the research—but also isolating myself or putting myself in an environment where I can really feel the research as well.

For Killing Them Softly, the dialogue was instrumental. Right then and there you have voice, and voice is one of the first things you look for in characters—what does this guy talk like, what does he sound like? Beyond that, it’s: what does he do? Who is this guy? What does he do in his spare time? The more specific you can get in answering these questions makes it very very clear who your character is. And paying attention to those details strengthens your performance as an actor.  I actually had the flu when I went in to audition for Killing Them Softly and I made the character really sick—because I was sick at the time. It turns out they really liked what I was doing with the part and I thought, why not make the character malnourished? He has no family, he has no home—it’s in the middle of winter and he’s broke. You just start building upon these things. The starting place for how these characters develop usually begins at the same place, but what develops is always different—it always goes off in some random direction that I wind up following.

How did you prepare for your role in Argo?

Argo was a luxury, really. I got to work with some of the best crew—one of the best DPs, one of the best directors, amazing actors. As far as the research and prep for that went: they put all of the research materials into a big old cardboard box and gave it to us. Anything we wanted to know about 1979, about the timeline, about the embassy, who the big movie star was in 1979, what was going on in TIME Magazine in 1979—you name it, they put it all into this box. Anything you needed to know about your character or about the situation was in that box. On top of that, they put us all into a house for 7 days and took our cellphones and disconnected us from the world. And it was similar to the research I did when I was in Big Sur. Within the research that I was doing, I got the feeling of it—of isolation, total entrapment, of being a hostage.

How about Killing Them Softly?

For Killing Them Softly, I had my best friend Ben Mendelsohn in the movie and we ended up moving into a house together. We figured; let’s not make up chemistry, let’s create real chemistry and take it to set. Ben and I developed a very quick, solid, sick relationship with each other for the movie and you definitely see that in the work.

Ben Mendelsohn as Russell and Scoot McNairy as Frankie in KILLING THEM SOFTLY Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon © 2011 Cogan’s Productions

What was it like working with Gus Van Sant in Promised Land?

It was great. I mean talk about someone who just walks onto a set and point-blank knows what he wants. [Gus Van Sant] doesn’t use any monitors. There’s no playback on set, which is great with me because I never watch playback anyways. It’s a lot like filming an old film: he sits next to the camera and watches. It was such a blessing to be a part of a movie he’s in because I’ve been watching all of his movies for so long.

What are some common illusions about acting that you’ve found to be false? 

Acting is definitely a lot more unglamorous than it seems. You have a lot of downtime. When you’re starting out, you make very little money. People hear you get paid a certain amount. And it’s like: yes, but I didn’t have a job for nine months! [laughs] So it’s definitely an illusion that you make a whole bunch of money, especially starting out.

When I first came out to Los Angeles, I learned really quickly—I’d say in the first 6 months to a year—that this town is what you make of it. You see some aspiring actors really working hard at it and you know that’s your competition. You really have to work as hard as you can. It’s nonstop; 24 hours a day. You’re constantly thinking of characters, driving to an audition or acting in an acting class. You’re constantly reading scripts. You don’t get home at 5 at the end of the day and put your stuff down. Whether you’re going to the theater, or going to a late night rehearsal, or meeting someone, or trying to get financing—it can be a real hustle sometimes. I don’t think you can get far in this field sitting around waiting for the phone to ring.

What advice do you have for aspiring actors?

Just focus on the work. No acting class is a bad acting class for the first month. There’s always something to be learned. You can never “master” the craft of acting, but you can still try to learn as much as you can or gain as much practice in your art as you can. You do this because you love to do it, not because you have expectations or you want a pay off. If you don’t love it in five years, go do something else.

What inspired you to get into film? Was there an influential role or movie that provoked your interest in acting?

When I was a kid, I was just fascinated with movies. My older brother and my dad used to watch a lot of Westerns. There’s one that I used to think was so cool—Silverado with Kevin Costner. I just saw that movie and thought: how do they make this movie, how do they do that? I saw Lonesome Dove when I was a kid and just the epic scale of filming a cattle herd from Texas to Wyoming blew me away. My intrigue came from my wanting to be a part of these stories. I learn things visually and movies were something I could get lost in. I was just enthralled by films and movies.

€œARGO,€ Warner Bros. Pictures.

How did you get into acting, specifically?

I grew up spending a lot of time in the theater when I was young. I did some plays at the local church. Then, at 12 or 13, I decided I wasn’t that interested in it. I just wanted to hang out in the creek and fish [laughs]. When I turned 18, I moved down to Austin, TX, which was more of a film-friendly place. You saw kids shooting student films and I just started getting back into acting. One day, a guy came in who was casting the lead role in his movie and I ended up getting the part. It’s the same guy who did In Search of a Midnight Kiss, I did his first movie [Wrong Numbers]. Even then, I wasn’t sure I wanted to act professionally. I got along with the cinematographer on that movie really well and I started shooting photography.

Eventually, I moved out to California to become a cinematographer. I went to film school for a little while, but dropped out—I’m a visual learner and I thought ‘the best way I can learn to do this is to get on set and watch it.’ So I started doing background work and I did that for about 5 or 6 months. I would just sit there and watch the cameraman and learn what everybody’s job was. I really wanted to learn as much as I could on set. From there, I went on to build sets as a carpenter, until I was introduced to my current business partner and manager, who got me doing commercials. I quit my carpentry job and started taking acting classes. 10 years later, I get a lucky break from Andrew Dominick on the Killing Them Softly movie, who has given me a great opportunity. So we’ll see what happens next.

**Feature image: Scoot McNairy as Frankie in KILLING THEM SOFTLY, Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon © 2011 Cogan’s Productions. All photos courtesy of Weinstein Co. and Warner Bros Studios.
]]> 0
A Conversation with Price Check Director Michael Walker on Casting Parker Posey, Supermarket Secrets, and Film School Mon, 26 Nov 2012 15:30:32 +0000 Writer-director Michael Walker made his feature filmmaking debut with the 2000 thriller Chasing Sleep, starring Jeff Daniels, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and went on to win Best Film at the Festival of Fantastic Film in Sweden.

...
Writer-director Michael Walker made his feature filmmaking debut with the 2000 thriller Chasing Sleep, starring Jeff Daniels, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and went on to win Best Film at the Festival of Fantastic Film in Sweden.

His latest film, Price Check, is a far cry from the thriller genre, but this comedy about a middle-class family and the eccentric boss who shakes up their world is just as titillating. It stars Parker Posey (as high-powered exec Susan Felders) and Eric Mabius (as Pete Cozy), a suburban dweller working in the pricing department of a middling supermarket chain. The film premiered at Sundance to rave reviews and opened November 16 in select cities.

The Credits: How did you come up with this idea?

WALKER: Two ideas came together: One of them was seeing my friends and all the problems they were having with money, insurance, kids in school, trouble at work, paying the mortgage. There weren’t any movies talking about anything like that. The other idea was Parker’s character, which I was always interested in doing: A really good boss who inspires people working at a job that isn’t too interesting.

Did you have Parker in mind when you wrote this?

No, but she was the first person we sent it to.

How would you describe her character?

In the script it says, if she wasn’t a woman, no one would call her a b–ch. Which I think is true. There are a lot of ideas in the film, one of which is traditional home life versus the career woman. The career woman is ambitious and can’t get her personal life together at all, versus Pete, who can get his personal life together but doesn’t have any ambition or know what he wants to do.

Did you research the supermarket business?

I did. Shelving strategy isn’t that glamorous, but when you hear about it from someone who’s really articulate, it becomes very interesting. Also, it’s a very private business. It’s secretive stuff. Surprisingly, I couldn’t even get access to a lot of their offices.

Should we take the name Pete Cozy literally?

I generally don’t like doing that stuff, but that somehow slipped by. But yeah, he’s generally cozy in his job, cozy in his life, and is taken outside of his comfort zone.

What about the title Price Check? What does it mean to you?

Well, it’s a supermarket term, but it’s also about your value in life. Is it based on money? How do you judge success? How do you evaluate your life? The movie’s about choices you make in your life and how you think they’re yours, and they’re not necessarily.

Do reviews mean much to you?

I’ve been reading these as they’ve been coming out. It hurts when you get bad reviews. It hurts when you read on the internet that one person doesn’t like the movie. It’s awful. But the other side of that is if someone really likes the movie and then they also like some other movie that you hate. So you sort of lose perspective on it. I like to read reviews where they understand the movie. If they like it or don’t, that’s fine, as long as they’re getting all of the stuff that’s in there. It means they paid attention.

Have you been crippled by a bad review?

No, my reviews for this and for Chasing Sleep have been around a B-plus, which is kind of how I did in school anyway. I’m used to it. (laughs)

You graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts Film Program, and also studied at the Stella Adler Conservatory for Acting in Los Angeles. How important is it for a filmmaker to go to film school?

I’m really glad I did. There’s no question you can get along without going to film school, but I do think you need a college education of some sort. I got a lot out of it. There’s an art to film and a craft to film. You can learn the craft in a couple days, but there’s an art to it too.

What did you learn about directing by studying acting?

That helped me a lot. I’m sort of shy, so that definitely helped me when it came to talking to actors. I wasn’t very good at doing that.

What kind of set do you run?

Price Check was fun. There wasn’t much hanging out after work because there was no time to do that, but everyone had a good time. I don’t like a lot of chaos on the set. I storyboard everything. Everything’s as prepared as it can be, especially on these short, low budget films. I hear about other films that are low budget and they improvise, and I don’t know how they do it. I can’t imagine.

How did you get Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips of Luna to do the music?

I put Dean into the script just as a reference, and a friend of mine who knows him said, “Want me to send him the script?” So we did, and they said they’d be interested in doing it. We worked it out so they could be in the movie and do the soundtrack, and it would be a history of indie music too. It worked out really well. I love the soundtrack.

Me too. And you’re already onto your next film, The Maid’s Room. What can you tell us about it?

We’re waiting to hear from Sundance. It’s more of a psychological thriller, much more like Chasing Sleep. It’s about a maid who gets a job in the Hamptons. The 18-year-old son is out one night and hits somebody on the road while he’s drunk, and they try to cover it up, and the maid’s the only one who knows. It’s a thriller. We’ll see how it does.

Featured Image: Susan Felders (Parker Posey) and Pete Cozy (Eric Mabius) in Michael Walker’s Price Check. Photo credit: Sam Chase. An IFC Films release.

]]> 1
Black Friday Film Gift Guide: 10 of Our Favorite Recent Blu-Ray & DVD Releases Fri, 23 Nov 2012 15:30:47 +0000 It’s officially Black Friday, and that means holiday gift-buying season is well underway. So whether you intend to spend today elbowing your way to bargain deals at big box chain stores or online-ordering your holiday gifts from the safety of ... Read More

It’s officially Black Friday, and that means holiday gift-buying season is well underway. So whether you intend to spend today elbowing your way to bargain deals at big box chain stores or online-ordering your holiday gifts from the safety of your own home, we’ve put together 10 great recent DVD and Blu-Ray releases. After all, what could possibly make for a better holiday morning than unwrapping say, a definitive DVD box set containing every James Bond flick made to date, the remastered 25th anniversary edition of The Princess Bride, or a brand new copy of indie hit Beasts Of The Southern Wild? Here are a few of our favorite new Blu-Ray/DVD releases:

The Princess Bride Blu-Ray/DVD [20th Century Fox Home Entertainment]: Who doesn’t love this perennial favorite? Directed by Rob Reiner and starring Cary Elwes and Many Patinkin, this movie has prevailed as a time-tested family favorite for its smart blend of schmaltz and wit—and it serves as a quick fix for a dose of nostalgia for those who first caught it in the theaters 25 years ago. Adventure, fairy tale and Fred Savage ensure the film is a safe bet for viewers of all demographics.

The Dictator Blu-Ray/DVD [Paramount Home Entertainment]: Everyone wants a movie that can be watched over and over again. The recipe for repeatability? Epic one-liners, laugh-till-you-cry sequences, and a hilarious lead. And Sasha Baron Cohen’s latest flick fits the bill precisely. Anyone who loves satire and slapstick in equal measures will appreciate The Dictator, wherein Cohen plays a hysterically vain megalomaniac who comes to America. The Blu-Ray boasts outtakes and never before seen footage.

Avatar Blu-Ray 3D Collector’s Edition [20th Century Fox Home Entertainment]: Even if, like the rest of the world, you saw Avatar for the first (or thrice) time in the theater, seeing it at home and in 3D is a pretty good reason to gift this collector’s item to a fan of special effects, great storytelling, James Cameron, or all of the above. And it’s a limited edition, so fans will appreciate the opportunity to see their favorite blue sci-fi protagonists up close and personal.

Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection [Universal Studios Home Entertainment]: Watching a movie by master of mystery and director extraordinaire, Alfred Hitchcock, is an exercise in film study. Storytelling, lighting, suspense—it’s all there in near perfect orchestration. So a masterpiece collection with 14 of Hitchcock’s greatest films? That’s pretty much freshman year at film school. In other words: it’s the perfect gift for cinephiles of all ilk. The collection includes classics like Rear Window, North by Northwest, and Birds, and stars iconic actors like Paul Newman, Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, and Sean Connery. It also comes with a collector’s book.

Moonrise Kingdom Blu-Ray/DVD [Universal Studios Home Entertainment] Wes Anderson may well be one of the most hyper-stylish directors around. His movies are always stamped with his trademark aesthetic—from an uber-cool soundtrack, to lush cinematography and scripts full of heart-warming quirk. So really, Moonrise Kingdom isn’t just a movie; it’s a work of art in a variety of mediums.  Bruce Willis, Ed Norton, and Tilda Swinton star in this nostalgia-steeped film of first-time love in a New England camp, and the chaos that brews around it.

Brave: The Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray/DVD [Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment] When it hit theaters, Brave was an instant hit. Legendary animation, a truly touching—and at times frighteningly enchanting—script, with the voices of Emma Thompson, Kelly Macdonald, and Billy Connolly made this movie a refreshing new animation that quickly gained a cult following. Fans will be more than content with this ultra collector’s edition, which spans five discs and includes the 3D version, plus tons of bonus footage.

Bond 50 [MGM Home Entertainment]: Cars, weapons, gadgets, and one super cool spy—James Bond is uncontestably one of the most iconic figures in cinema. MGM’s latest box set celebrates the 50th anniversary of the franchise and includes all 22 Bond films to date. Loyal fans will appreciate the new digital extras, and the ease of having the Bond collection finally in one place—from Goldeneye to The Spy Who Loved Me. Plus, fans will surely dabble in the featurettes, which include trivia and behind-the-scenes footage of the 23rd Bond film Skyfall.

It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia Season 7 [20th Century Home Entertainment]: Always Sunny is one of the funniest shows on television, fact. But part of the real humor lies in the show’s quick-lobbed zingers and countless witticisms, which is why the show makes for great repeat viewing. The Blu-Ray includes great bonus extras, hilarious commentary, and of course, an epically hysterical seventh season. A good bet for anyone who likes family dysfunction, Danny DeVito, and mile-a-minute laughs (oh, and the Jersey Shore—a delightful highlight of this season).

Sunset Boulevard Blu-Ray/DVD [Paramount Home Entertainment] This classic directed and co-written by Hollywood icon Billy Wilder and starring William Holden and Gloria Swanson is noir at its best. A struggling screenwriter and near-forgotten silent film star intersect for what is arguably one of the greatest Hollywood movies in history.  History, noir, and lore lovers of all kind will appreciate the Blu-Ray extras and the upgraded quality, especially.

Beasts of the Southern Wild Blu-Ray/DVD [20th Century Fox Entertainment] When this independent hit came out earlier this year, it was hailed as an instant film classic. Critics heralded its dreamlike narration, stunning cinematography, and excellent acting by its young and uber-talented lead actress (Quvenzhane Wallis). Enigmatic, beautiful, moving and heart-wrenching, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film to watch and then rewatch immediately. And while it’s not out until December 4th, many online retailers are offering pre-order reservations.

**Featured image: Beasts of the Southern Wild, courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
]]> 0
From Mystic Pizza to Dinner For Schmucks: 12 Truly Awkward Dinner Scenes Thu, 22 Nov 2012 15:30:12 +0000 Thanksgiving. A time to be thankful for your family, your friends, and the fact that most dinners don’t end up devolving into anything resembling what happens in the clips we’ve assembled below. We combed through’s archives and curated this list of ... Read More

Thanksgiving. A time to be thankful for your family, your friends, and the fact that most dinners don’t end up devolving into anything resembling what happens in the clips we’ve assembled below. We combed through’s archives and curated this list of 12 truly uncomfortable dinner moments, ranging from the ridiculous to the weird to downright hostile, and we give thanks to the medium of film, which has created so many memorably awful dinner scenes it makes most of our family meals seem like lessons in bonhomie.

Without further ado, enjoy the meal:

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

Dinner With Ruprecht

Con-men Lawrence (Michael Caine) and Freddy (Steven Martin) are in the midst of a lengthy con of a wealthy Palm Beach woman (Frances Conroy). The meal takes quite a turn when Freddy, who is going by ‘Ruprecht’ for the con, asks if he can, well…just watch:

Mystic Pizza (1988)

Pizza Connoisseurs

Daisy Arujo (Julia Roberts), a teenage pizza shop waitress, has dinner with her new boyfriend and his patrician family. Things go from slightly uncomfortable to unbelievably so, with a finale that begged the question why haven’t we ever tried that? Also, Matt Damon’s in this clip, and he’s about ten:

Christmas Vacation (1989)

Turkey Dinner

If you were growing up in the late 1980s and early 90s, you might have seen this film in the theater, and then on TV, a few thousand times like we did. Everything’s going well here, but, this is a Chevy Chase movie, so something (usually him) has to fall flat. This time, it’s the center piece of the meal:

The Addams Family (1991)

Dinner Conversation

Such a good cast—Raul Julia as Gomez, Angelica Huston as Morticia, Christina Ricci as Wednesday, Christopher Lloyd as Uncle Fester…who wouldn’t want to sit at this table (but not eat a single thing)? Only Uncle Fester is hiding something, and his frayed nerves are put to the test by this fantastic family of freaks:

Home for the Holidays (1995)

Aunt Gladys’s Confession

Nothing says uncomfortable like a public confession of love, in front of your whole family, to somebody who’s not only not your husband, but is your sister’s husband. The cast is bonkers (Anne Bancroft, Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr., Dylan McDermott, Claire Danes) and this scene, in particular, manages to be both uncomfortable and powerful.

Meet the Parents (2000)

Greg Says Grace

The reigning champion of the awkward moment, Gaylord ‘Greg’ Focker (Ben Stiller) says grace, while father-in-law (an ex-CIA agent) Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) makes a lot of faces, uncomfortable with Greg’s bizarre attempts at the pre-meal ritual. Then Greg mistakes an urn for a vase and, well, like the book we all had to read in high school, things fall apart:

The Aviator (2004)

Dinner With the Hepburns

Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) has dinner with Audrey Hepburn and her family. In what has to be the most ancient creator of awkward dinner moments, the rich, well-bred and obnoxious Hepburns do everything short of pinching their noses at the self-made Hughes, until he’s had quite enough. This is the most cathartic of the scenes we chose:

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

Dinner With the Real Girl

Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) has finally met a girl he really likes, so he brings her to his brother and sister-in-law’s house for dinner. A totally normal scenario unfolds:

The Company Men (2010)


Are you noting a pattern here? The blue-collar-versus-white-collar battle rears its head again, only made exponentially more awkward for happening during Thanksgiving dinner, amongst your in-laws, and in front of your children. In this scene, recently laid-off corporate executive Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) dines with his wife, her sister, and her sister’s contractor husband Jack Dolan (Kevin Costner), who gives him a piece of mind regarding corporate salaries:

Dinner for Schmucks (2010)

I Speak Your Language

Talk about culture shock. Barry (Steve Carell) sits down with Tim (Paul Rudd) and a Swiss couple. Barry assures them the’s a great fan of their home country, and proceeds to do everything short of accuse them of appeasing the Nazis during World War II in the process:

Date Night (2010)

Dinner Games

Claire and Phil Foster (Tina Fey and Steve Carell) are a bored married couple trying to enjoy their ‘date night,’ and do so by making fun of other couples at the restaurant, a tried-and-true method of spicing up an otherwise dull dinner:

Greenberg (2010)

Birthday Dinner

Ben Stiller (the eponymous Greenberg) is having dinner on his birthday with his friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans), and puts the capital M in Misanthropic. An underrated film, Greenberg was basically a masterclass in creating uncomfortable scenarios, taught by the master himself:

Featured Image: Clockwise from left, Scarlett Johansson as “Janet Leigh,” Anthony Hopkins as “Alfred Hitchcock” and Helen Mirren as “Alma Reville” on the set of Hitchcock, courtesy Fox Searchlight


]]> 0
Rock and ‘Rolling!’ MoMA Retrospective Gifts NYC Fifty Years of The Rolling Stones on Film Wed, 21 Nov 2012 15:30:46 +0000 It’s been fifty years since The Rolling Stones first shook the world and acquainted us with the famously unrestrained hips of Mick Jagger and the brooding eye-lined stare of perpetually funny-faced guitarist Keith Richards—not to mention the milder stage antics ... Read More

It’s been fifty years since The Rolling Stones first shook the world and acquainted us with the famously unrestrained hips of Mick Jagger and the brooding eye-lined stare of perpetually funny-faced guitarist Keith Richards—not to mention the milder stage antics (but no-less tantamount musical prodigy) of present and past band members Charlie Watts, Ronnie Wood, Brian Jones, Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman.

And while The Stones may have introduced many to the svelte silhouette of too-tight pants, jet-black eyeliner, and the early signs of heroin chic, for many fans, the band introduced us to something much greater: Rock and roll.

To commemorate the inception of arguably the greatest rock band of all time, the Museum of Modern Art NYC has curated the film retrospective The Rolling Stones: 50 Years On Film, which seizes the museum’s big screen from November 15-December 2, for seventeen days of legendary rock docs, rare concert footage, television performances, experimental shorts, and more.

The Stones in the Park. 1969. Great Britain. Directed by Leslie Woodhead. Pictured: Mick Taylor, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman. Courtesy Photofest.

Highlights of the film exhibit include Stones cinemabilia like the raw concert footage assemblage doc Charlie Is My Darling–Ireland 1965 (1965/2012), The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus (1968/1996), Gimme Shelter (1970), the scripted Enigma (2001)and Martin Scorsese’s Shine A Light (2008). In sum, it makes for one rollicking cinematic tour-de-force honoring the boisterous quartet and its former members.

In half a century, The Stones have amassed an impressive and extensive list of collaborations with some of the greatest filmmakers in history. A list that spans the likes of Jean Luc-Goddard, Martin Scorsese, Michael AptedKenneth Anger, Hal Ashby, David Fincher, Albert and David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin.

And as Stones fans well know, the band’s history with film is as storied as it is legitimate.

Let’s Spend the Night Together. 1983. USA. Directed by Hal Ashby. Pictured: Mick Jagger, Ronnie Wood, Keith Richards. Courtesy Embassy Pictures Corp./Photofest.

Aptly, MoMA kicked off the film retrospective with Robert Frank’s hyper-controversial documentary C—-ker Blues (1972), which captures the less-than-virtuous meanderings of The Stones and gives perhaps a bit too much screen-time to the band’s scandalous off-stage antics. Well, that’s according to the band, who had qualms with the unreleased film’s negative portrayal of the group (spoiler alert: Keith Richards does drugs on camera!) It’s also the rarest film in the retrospective, having been victim of a court-ordered—and Stones requested—viewing embargo.

But it seems The Stones have made peace with proof of their provocative past. The Stones attended the retrospective’s opening, where Keith Richards spoke about the ways in which cinema and, in particular, director Martin Scorsese, have impacted the band’s creative process. According to Fuse’s account, Richards quipped: “Marty helped us get soaked into culture…all of a sudden, I’d go to see the movies and my music is coming back at me.”

Sympathy for the Devil. 1968. Great Britain. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Pictured: Keith Richards. All images courtesy Carlotta Films.

Cinematic influence on the iconoclastic band is obvious when viewing any of the MoMA retrospective’s excellent films. The Credits caught the Sunday night screening of The Rolling Stones’ now-infamous appearance in the star-studded concert film The T.A.M.I. Show (1964), which features epic live performances by acts including James Brown & The Famous Flames, The Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, and of course, The Rolling Stones helmed by the transfixing swagger of a young (and dare we say innocent-looking) Mick Jagger.

As a film, The T.A.M.I. Show’s influence is profound—director Quentin Tarantino has hailed it one of the “top three of all rock movies.” Agreed. The in-theater reaction for James Brown’s IRL performance of “Night Train” would give any modern day special effects house cause for worry.

The showing was so satisfying that catching the very next night’s feature The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus (1968/1996) on MoMA’s big screen was a given. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg starred in the film’s prelude and provided pithy commentary on directing The Stones videos “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Child of The Moon,” and “Neighbours.” (Fun fact: the band’s music video for “Neighbours” was an explicit homage to Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window.)

The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. 1968/1996. Directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg. Pictured: Keith Moon, Pete Townsend, Mick Jagger. Courtesy ABKCO Music & Records.

Of course, The Circus itself joins the ranks of other quality rock productions from big music acts of the time, like The Beatles’ A Hard Days Night (1964) Magical Mystery Tour (1967) and, later, The Who’s heralded rock-opera Tommy (1969). And while some speculate that the documentary’s release stalled because The Rolling Stones felt upstaged by The Who (who yes, unleashed one of the most extraordinary performances of all time in The Circus with “A Quick One While He’s Away”), The Stones’ conclusory set drew in-theater chuckles, ‘wows,’ and a near-standing applause.  And when Jagger says “honey,” into the camera…well, even I had to stifle a reflexive squeal.

Much like The T.A.M.I. Show, The Circus is simply made to be viewed en masse. With performances from Jethro Toll, The Who, Taj Mahal, Marianne Faithful, The Dirty Mac (the infamous one-time supergroup featuring John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Mitch Mitchell), Yoko Ono, and The Rolling Stones, you just can’t imagine the effervescence that emanated from a usually tight-lipped arthouse audience. I guess you had to be there.

Better still: you should be there for the next week’s worth of Stones-centric cinema. The MoMA’s dynamic 50th anniversary retrospective is a reminder of just how emblematic The Rolling Stones are—as a band of musicians, as the forerunners of a pivotal fad-defying music movement, and as bona fide ambassadors for generations of art enthusiasts of all ilk. It’s also a testament to the enduring power of cinema. Watching The Stones make history on the big screen is essentially an act of cultural grace. I tell you, there was glee in the theater—and in New York City, of all places.

The Rolling Stones Charlie Is My Darling – Ireland 1965. 1965/2012. Ireland. Directed by Peter Whitehead. Pictured: Brian Jones, Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman. Courtesy Irish Photo Archive.

Yes, New Yorkers: it is highly suggested that you fare the city’s winter weather to check out the rest of the retrospective, which culminates in the ultra-rare film, Charlie Is My Darling–Ireland 1965, a documentary of The Rolling Stones on tour in Ireland. For more information, visit MoMA Film’s website. And for those who can’t make it to the Big Apple, be sure to check out the new Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane (2012), available on HBO.

The Rolling Stones during the making of Shine A Light, directed by Martin Scorsese, 2008,USA. Image courtesy of Kevin Mazur/WireImage.

]]> 0
Disney Gets Awesomely Technical on Latest Wonder Wreck-It Ralph Tue, 20 Nov 2012 15:00:15 +0000 To satisfy today’s sophisticated audiences, the technical demands of animation continue to grow exponentially. With the hit film Wreck-It Ralph in theaters now, The Credits takes a look at animation technology today at the studio that’s been a leader in ... Read More

To satisfy today’s sophisticated audiences, the technical demands of animation continue to grow exponentially. With the hit film Wreck-It Ralph in theaters now, The Credits takes a look at animation technology today at the studio that’s been a leader in the field for over 85 years, Walt Disney Animation Studios.

From Steamboat Willie and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to The Lion King and Tangled, Disney pushes the technology of art with each new film.

The technology team led by Chief Technology Officer Andy Hendrickson was tackling the unique challenges of Wreck-It Ralph over two years before the film officially began production. It takes place in several video-game worlds, including an 8-bit game called Fix-It Felix Jr., a first-person-shooter game called Hero’s Duty, and a candy-themed cart racing game called Sugar Rush. “We were faced with creating a pipeline and a tool set that could effectively create all the different looks of the worlds without having to be customized,” says Hendrickson.

“WRECK-IT RALPH” (Pictured) RALPH (voice of John C. Reilly) in the video game world of Hero’s Duty. 2012 Disney.

One part of the challenge was realistically conveying how light interacts with all of the various surfaces within each world. For both animators and technologists, research is the name of the game.

Existing theoretical models didn’t sufficiently describe what the human eye observes, so the team searched for a better explanation. “We took data of hundreds of materials, shot with multiple angles between the camera and the light source, to build a new mathematical model,” Hendrickson says. This meant they were able to use the same math for multiple surfaces. From there, the world-class Disney animators could paint down the variables on each object in a scene, to achieve a variety and volume of looks that would be extraordinarily difficult to do with computer graphics.

For the special challenge of Sugar Rush, where a large portion of the film takes place, they also created a Gummi Shader to accomplish the semi-sheer looks that candy can have.

Not only does Wreck-It Ralph take place in several worlds, but it features nearly 190 distinct characters. Some of these come from classic real-world video games, including Pac-Man, Q-Bert, and Sonic the Hedgehog, and they needed 3D realizations that stayed true to the original graphics. The demands of the characters in Wreck-It Ralph led to the creation of a scripting language that automatically creates the animation controls for the characters in a way that is both flexible and repeatable.

The task of building new technology for Walt Disney Animation’s next films is already underway. “We have to stay ahead of the audience expectation,” says Hendrickson. “Our technologists are busy building software and systems to support the next generation of animation.”

Check out the incredible progression of a frame from storyboard to lighting:

Featured image-GAME CENTRAL STATION — Ralph (voice of John C. Reilly) €”tired of being overshadowed by Fix-It Felix, Jr. (voice of Jack McBrayer), the good guy star of their game sets off on a quest to prove ha€™s got what it takes to be a hero. His arcade-game-hopping journey kicks off at Game Central Station, an industrial power strip that serves as the central hub connecting every game in the arcade ©2012 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

]]> 1
The Incredible True Story Behind The Sessions: A Conversation With Director Ben Lewin Mon, 19 Nov 2012 15:00:35 +0000 The Sessions tells the story of Mark O’Brien, a man confined to an iron lung for most of his day and who is determined, as he nears 40, to lose his virginity. The premise could be mistaken for a potential ... Read More

The Sessions tells the story of Mark O’Brien, a man confined to an iron lung for most of his day and who is determined, as he nears 40, to lose his virginity. The premise could be mistaken for a potential comedy or a melodrama. It was neither. In fact, The Sessions has been the focus of serious Oscar buzz ever since reviewers across the country fell in love with it in early November. John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene) stars as O’Brien; Helen Hunt plays Cheryl Cohen Greene, the sexual surrogate who teaches O’Brien how to reach and control his orgasms; and William H. Macy channels Father Brendan, a Catholic priest from whom O’Brien seeks dispensation and counsel.

When writer-director Ben Lewin first came across polio victim Mark O’Brien’s 1990 article, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” he was immediately intrigued: A 38 year-old man confined to an iron lung for 80% of his day, and largely paralyzed from the neck down, seeks to lose his virginity. Though Lewin had also suffered from polio as a child, as a filmmaker, what truly drew him in was the possibility of telling a thoroughly original and engaging story of a journey that essentially takes place between two people in one room.

We spoke with Lewin about the incredible true story about the film, making a fantastic film about two people in a room, and ditching fantasy sequences in favor of the chemistry happening on screen.

THE CREDITS: You first read Mark’s story in late 2006. When you read the article, as a filmmaker, what was your first instinct?

BEN LEWIN: When I started imagining it as a film, my first thought was, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great if Mark O’Brien could play himself?” until I learned that he died in ’99. I contacted the newspaper that published the article, and the editor there told me that his girlfriend, Susan Fernbach, owned the rights to the article. That’s how I discovered that in the last years of his life that he had this wonderful relationship with a woman, which added a very ironic coda to the story for me. My wife and I went up to Northern California to spend the weekend with Susan a few months later.

Did the project begin then in earnest fairly quickly?

We really began to like and trust each other right then. We were very mindful from the outset, that one of the really attractive parts of the project was that it was makeable. It was a very powerful, dramatic story, in a very compact form. Two people in a room usually amounts to a boring movie—but not in this case. We visualized a film that we could artistically control, because it wouldn’t cost us a lot of money to do it. I began the writing process as soon as I met Susan.

How long was it before you met with Cheryl, O’Brien’s real-life sexual surrogate?

The effect of meeting Cheryl was that it really became a relationship movie in my mind, the relationship between Mark and Cheryl. I realized I had two very fascinating characters and it became a journey film, not just a biopic.

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in The Sessions—photo courtesy Fox Searchlight

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in The Sessions—photo courtesy Fox Searchlight

John Hawkes spent countless hours lying on a gurney, contorting his back in ways that ultimately injured a disc. How important was physicality in your casting?

One of my big concerns was finding someone who could play Mark without a body double, computer-generated imagery, or a lot of optical trickery. John had the advantage of being of very slight build, but he also went to enormous lengths to do what was physically necessary to be that character.

Obviously there were a lot of challenges in finding the right Mark, but was casting Cheryl just as daunting?

Yes, every bit. When you’re casting, you’re re-writing the script in a way and defining the demographic of the movie. I wanted to make Cheryl as real as possible, and I needed someone really intelligent to convey the paradox of her situation: a middle class soccer mom representing family values who also has this really unusual occupation at the same time and having to tread this tightrope of being physically involved with a client and caring about the client, but not wanting to get emotionally involved. That’s a very complex and layered character, so you need an actress who really appreciates that and is prepared to tackle it without thinking it. It’s one thing to play a complex character; it’s another thing to do it as if you’re not even thinking about it.  I put a lot of effort and thought into the casting. To me it’s the most stressful and the most exciting part of film production.

How involved were Susan and Cheryl in the casting?

Every now and then I’d bounce ideas off them, but when I’m casting, in the same way as when I’m writing, I need to be focused and really have a sense of what I’m doing as a filmmaker rather than getting too many opinions.

Did you tend to use the real-life folks more while you were writing then?

Yes. Cheryl is a wonderful character and I think without her collaboration, and without Susan’s, this would have been a very different film, and much the poorer. I found them invaluable resources to my writing. During production, they were also available to the actors, the art department, and anyone else interested in detail.

William H. Macy as Father Brendan—photo courtesy Fox Searchlight

William H. Macy as Father Brendan—photo courtesy Fox Searchlight

The Father Brendan character is such an important part of the structure of the screenplay itself.

His character is really invented, because I didn’t know who he was, aside from the text of Mark’s article, where he talks about a particular priest that he consulted to get some kind of blessing from. I found the idea of a hippie priest in Berkeley quite plausible, and I also find the idea of someone working in that job being profoundly humanitarian and not imprisoned by dogma, equally plausible. I think Father Brendan is also kind of a Greek chorus, an outlet for Mark’s inner voice.

His curiosity about Mark’s sexual experiences also brings lightness to the film.

Ironically, these are both characters for whom sex is kind of a no-man’s land, so there is a funny aspect that neither of them have a very experienced take on the subject.

What parts of Mark’s story were you most interested in telling?

In 1999, Jessica Yu made and Oscar winning documentary on Mark called Breathing Lessons, where she used his poetry as a connective device to tell his story. Listening to the way his poetry was used in that film stimulated me to read all of his poems and to use as much of it as I could to amplify the narrative. I was prepared to have technical errors with his body. What was more important was getting Mark’s essence as a writer and a thinker, and particularly his lust for experience.

Did anything particularly surprising come about during filming?

The biggest surprise came in the editing. I had filmed some fantasy sequences that were suggested by Mark’s article, but I found that the relationship between Cheryl and Mark, and then between Helen and John, played in such a real way that I couldn’t use them, because they felt like they belonged in another movie. I was worried about the film being constantly trapped by filming a horizontal guy, and I initially thought the fantasy sequences could lighten things up, but we dumped them when we saw how authentic their relationship played.

Sexual surrogacy isn’t a widely known field. Do you see your film having the potential to spark interest in it?

Amazingly, at quite a number of screenings, someone has stood up and said, “I’ve been a sexual surrogate for twenty years and I finally feel comfortable talking about it.” Even if it’s an unintended effect, I do think the film has generated curiosity about that very unusual profession, and I hope that it’s given it some dignity and legitimacy.

Featured Image: Director Ben Lewin chats with William H. Macy on the set The Sessions—courtesy Fox Searchlight.

]]> 2