Yearly Archives - 2014

Filmmaker Albert Magnoli Merged Movies and Music in Purple Rain By Scott Essman and Osahon Irabor

Filmmaker Albert Magnoli Merged Movies and Music in Purple Rain
By Scott Essman and Osahon Irabor

From writing, producing, editing and directing Jazz (1979), one of the most critically-acclaimed thesis films in the last 35 years, to managing one of the most polarizing pop culture icons of all time in Prince, Albert Magnoli has undoubtedly seen and done it all in Hollywood. From 1984’s Purple Rain, to 1996’s TV series Nash Bridges, and 1997’s Warner Brothers hit Dark Planet, Magnoli’s early film history challenged norms and pushed boundaries. At first glance, Magnoli’s story may seem run-of-the-mill: a talented director finding his way into the film industry and onto the big screen. But journey back to 1976, the start of his career, and you will discover a young and talented aspiring director with a camera, a dream, and landscape-changing ideas.

A student of USC’s famed School of Cinema-Television, Magnoli knew that the techniques and information that he retained from his collegiate years had a huge influence on his career. “What I learned at USC film school was extremely valuable,” he said. “It gave me a firm foundation technically, and provided me with a grounding that served me well as I ventured into the professional realm. Many times when I was on the set directing, or in the editing room editing, I would think back and rely on the things I had learned at USC, speaking to the professors and my fellow students. It was a solid, educational experience, and I draw on my time there to this day. The bottom line is this: I loved my time there, and I would not hesitate to recommend the experience to students considering the venture.”

With others from the same period at USC eventually entering the industry, including Ken Kwapis, Kevin Reynolds, and Phil Joanou, Magnoli realized he was in select company at the school. “Working with your peers and the professors in an environment that constantly challenged your ideas and abilities was exhilarating,” said Magnoli, “like stepping across a high-wire spanning a canyon with just a pole in your hand for balance. We used to say that if we could make it through film school, then we would have the basic tools to navigate the shark-infested waters of Hollywood.”

As a young and aspiring director, Magnoli knew he would need to receive the same type of tutelage as students from areas such as Beverly Hills whom he knew had much deeper pockets than himself. ”I entered USC as a graduate student in spring 1976,” he reflected. “I graduated and drove to California in 1974 to establish residency. USC was the only school I applied to. I figured out what NYU was about, Chicago was about, UCLA and USC. I didn’t want to stay on the East Coast. Scorsese had just made his mark, [and] East Coast schools were very anti-Hollywood. I didn’t want to go through that. Chicago didn’t interest me [because] I didn’t see anyone who graduated there who was getting into the business. I realized that I didn’t have any cash I could burn.”

Soon after his acceptance into film school, Magnoli would realize just how competitive the landscape at USC would be. “The graduate cinema school was no different from the regular program – we shared the same environment,” he stated. “You were still interacting with each other. It’s just that you entered the school at a different level. Most of us came in with different degrees – we were put into the same pool. There were only two or three years between us. Once you were taking [cinema course numbers] 140, 290, 310, 480, 580, you were taking classes with everybody. You noticed a difference right away—those who had a degree had the ability to articulate themselves more so [than others]. We were in [course] 290 where everybody makes their mark. The very first day, there were 90 of us accepted out of 5000 applicants.”
The program mercilessly separated the strong from the weak, and Magnoli soon learned that his program size would be cut down considerably, putting the onus on his shoulders to perform at his highest level. “The production faculty was standing in front of us and said, ‘Here’s the scoop – there’s 90 of you in the graduate school; there will be 45 of you left after the first semester,’” Magnoli recalled. “’Then 20 left. When you graduate, there will be 10. We will not let you proceed if you have no talent.’ They had 90 students who were at the top of their game in whatever major they majored in. You had to write why you should be a cinema student. They heavily weighted what you wrote in that [regard]. They didn’t want to see any portfolios. We were all equal [and] in the same boat. It was scary [and] 290 was scary. You had to make five Super-8 films and the first one had to be five minutes long of a person, place, or thing in Super-8.

After making it through the cuts early on, Magnoli geared himself up for the creative challenges lying ahead. “We did [courses] 310, then 480 [and] after all that I edited two films that James Foley directed – a 480 and a 580,” he said. “I decided to make a thesis film. [With a] thesis film, you have to pay for your film stock, [and] they’ll give you the equipment. I took out a loan for $7000 and made the film over the summer. You are using student crews and they are getting credit for their classes. But when you do a thesis film, you are the only one with credit – the crew is just helping you out.”
With aforementioned notables plus others such as George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis having made successful 480s, Magnoli knew a thesis film would be his calling card for the industry – and so he created a music-oriented film called Jazz. “I made friends with camera rental places in Hollywood,” he stated. “They would give me a [good] rate because I was a student. It took me the entire summer to shoot the film on weekends [because] during the week, my fellow students were in class. It took me about six weekends to make Jazz. I went into the editing room at USC and cut it. May and June I shot it, and edited till the end of August.”

Having experienced early success, Magnoli would begin to explore new ideas and challenge norms in Jazz. Enlisting colleagues from his film school to aid him in his endeavors, Magnoli experimented with various methods of combining music with film. “The initial idea was I wanted to do a film that would raise the bar for how to use music in a motion picture,” he said of Jazz. “I played drums all the way until 12th grade. I wanted to use something musically [such as] work with real jazz musicians. I had the [musical] tracks laid, and I was shooting in real nightclubs in Inglewood—from 6am til 3pm when the nightclub was closed. All of the reaction shots were shot at USC.”

As Magnoli quickly discovered, his creative identity as a director, the foundation for his future artistic endeavors, began to materialize. “That was all the foundation that was being formed for Purple Rain,” he explained. “What I was doing at that time at USC were all stepping stones that led to Purple Rain. When I said I wanted something that raised the bar on a USC production, it was music and film. We were never taught how to do that. My [Jazz] sound guy David Wild got a Focus Award for best sound [and] the school benefited from the experience.”

With his directorial ambitions firmly set in Hollywood, Magnoli, along with James Foley and Josh Donen, devised a plan for the trio’s work to receive more exposure. “I was there with James Foley and Josh Donen, Stanley Donen’s son, at USC,” he stated. “We hatched this plan. USC never pushed their students into actually getting work in Hollywood. For the most part, these were few and far between. One of the reasons is USC refused to create a mechanism by which the industry could see student work. Our objective is to get an agent to sign us. I screened it at the [main USC theater] Norris Theater. I had over 500 people in there. I invited all of the agents in town. I brought in a few other films that I really liked [as well]. There was an intermission, [and] I sat there and let the agents fight over me!”
The Gersh Agency signed me. We had created a marker and got the marker to pay off.”

Having set the marker and successfully achieving their goal of garnering the interest of industry-leading agencies, Magnoli and his cohorts knew that the change they had affected in USC’s film landscape was the key that opened the door. “We were the beginning of that,” he said. We were literally the vanguard. Now it’s normal. As they became more and more successful, USC realized that [screenings of student films] could be an event, and now these industry screenings take place at the DGA with a lot of publicity. People were getting signed based on these screenings. I was excited, but it was part of the master plan.”

Magnoli’s Jazz eventually won a student Academy Award, and he soon after its release edited James Foley’s feature film Reckless for MGM leading to a fortuitous conflagration of events for the filmmakers. “During post-production, [Reckless’] producers wanted to see the movie,” he said. “Rob Cavallo, Prince’s manager, and I had a discussion, and that led to me doing Purple Rain.”

Prior to agreeing to direct Purple Rain, Magnoli saw first-hand that getting the industry to accept Cavallo’s script was going nowhere. “Cavallo came to watch Reckless and asked if Jamie [Foley] would be interested in doing a movie with Prince,” Magnoli remarked. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’ I got on the phone with Jamie in New York, and said ‘We’ve got our next picture with Prince – you’ll direct and I’ll edit.’ Jamie got the script and read it right away. He said, ‘It will not fly. Thank the guy, but I pass.’ I felt really bad. We’ll figure something else to do together. I had to discuss it with Cavallo. The next day the phone rings. I was in the editing room on Reckless – I knew immediately it was Cavallo on the phone. He said, ‘I did some checking up on you, and you made this film Jazz and have a deal with Paramount.”

Though Magnoli disliked the dark tones of Cavallo’s script, the budding director found an unlikely opportunity to re-tell the story himself. At a followup meeting with Cavallo, Magnoli virtually improvised an impromptu pitch which would later become the film we now know as Purple Rain. “I explained to him that the best way to create something unique is to hire a writer-director who could go to Minneapolis and saturate himself in Prince and the band then write something authentic and from the heart based on that experience,” Magnoli noted. “He said to me, ‘What would the story be?’ I launched into a pitch totally off the cuff that lasted seven minutes which was the skeleton of Purple Rain. It was because I was editing so much, I could see it as an editor – the whole story. I started layering all this stuff. In that excitement, I saw the story, coming up with a shot list right on the spot, a three-act structure. Cavallo was freaked out but was sold on the spot. He got it. Cavallo said, ‘You just told me a great story; what are you going to do about it?’ He was challenging me.”

With Cavallo immediately sold on Magnoli’s three-act story, there was one final necessity: selling Prince himself on the story. “(I told Cavallo), ‘I’m going to take the weekend off—you’re going to put me on a plane,” Magnoli detailed. “’If he likes it, we’ll make a movie. If not, send me back home.’ The next night, I was on my way to the airport. I met Prince that night, 1am, and said, ‘Here’s what I want to do.’ His reaction was, ‘You know me? How is it that in ten minutes you tell me my life story?’ I said ‘If you are willing to embrace what we are doing here and let your father smack you in the mouth in the first five minutes, we’ll make a movie.’ I said, ‘In this time and age, there is no one who doesn’t want to take a crack at a rock star.’ We had to be authentic. That’s where I was.”

According to Magnoli, Prince was able to provide a large catalog of songs, which allowed flexibility in the song-selection process and helped form Magnoli’s screenplay. “When Prince and I got together,” Magnoli recollected, “he said, ‘I have 100 songs that I think would work for the movie.’ I went through all 100 fully-produced songs. I asked for a lyric sheet for each song, listened to the song, and as I was writing the screenplay, [I would] craft the songs into the narrative [while] treating [the] lyrics as literature and knowing where they placed into the narrative that I was creating with the screenplay. One of the things [that was] important to me was not to ‘insert the song’ that had nothing to do with the story. In that context, it’s fantastic, but the idea that you just break into song and there’s magically an instrument in the scene, I knew wouldn’t work.”

In creating the template for Purple Rain, Magnoli had proven source material as his guide. “What worked for me was the film Cabaret by Bob Fosse,” Magnoli commented. “The fact is that the musical moments broadened the scope of the narrative, and the narrative drove the musical moment. It was a seamless flow of narrative and music. On top of that, the lyrical content of each performance number illuminated what was said in dialogue before and after the song. That was my approach – onstage and offstage. The narrative had to reflect and amplify the musical number and the music had to thrust me back into narrative. I wrote the screenplay and named the song that would play at that certain place.”

With a lack of MTV-era media to influence the film, Magnoli drew from his own experiences to create the movie’s visual world. “All of the stuff that was a hurdle at the film school level was no longer a hurdle,” he stated. “Now you are bringing a product to a marketplace to create those visuals that fascinate the audience. This is pre-MTV. There was no visual archive that we are now saturated with. There were no rock ‘n’ roll movies that were concert oriented. Basically, I knew what a nightclub should look like because I was a drummer in bands and was in a lot of clubs. I knew how clubs looked and what they smelled like. I was always fascinated by waitresses trying to get through a crowd of people with a tray full of drinks. In Jazz, I did the same thing: it was about creating images. I never watched MTV. By the time the film came out, MTV exploded. The film was already shot. There was no learning curve based on MTV at all.”

While the shoot went fairly smoothly, Magnoli notes the cooperation between departments as a key factor in the shoot’s effortless fluidity. “It was about as effortless as you can imagine,” he said. “There was absolutely no difficulty in the making of the film. Weather was a factor because it was such dramatic weather. The experience of creating an environment for the artists to work [in] was magic. The film crew was coming into a musical component that was fully formed. These [musicians] are used to performing and getting around on their own. They were highly suspicious of outsiders. Our job was to bring their art to a visual medium and meld into the background and do our work and bring them to the level we need.”

Sometimes the work of great editing rests more on the isolation of ideas than it does on collaboration. As such, Magnoli had a specific vision, and took it upon himself to create the narrative he wanted. “You never know anything when you are shooting,” he said. “There wasn’t much editing going on on location. Ken Robinson from USC was chopping away. I said to Ken, ‘Just read the script, shape it, but I’m not going to come into this room ever again. I am going to concentrate on getting the material ready to go. Once I get to LA, I‘m going to sit down and go to town.’ It was about shaping this thing: opening a story with a performance that you are cutting away from to create a storyline with five different characters. I hadn’t seen that before. I was inspired by the last minutes of The Godfather. The opening of Purple Rain—the equivalent of Michael Coreleone baptizing his child—is Prince on stage, and the cutaways are about all of the characters as they travel to the club. In seven-and-a-half minutes, I had created these characters and gotten them to the club. Everybody challenged it. Nobody understood what was there until I cut it. “

After all of the hard work, validation still comes with the reaction of the filmgoer, and, for Magnoli, the result was gratifying, and a testament to staying faithful to his vision. “You never know,” he confessed. “It was obvious from just things that I knew instinctively and had seen an audience react to on Jazz; it was what I was going for – you go for it and release it to the world and your audience, and they embrace it or don’t; then they make it their own. Us doing our job and watching what happens when the audience makes it their own. Those moments were repeated again and again with other bands. You started seeing that visual signature repeated.”
While the 1980s wasn’t an era known for multi-picture deals, Magnoli was still capable of rolling Purple Rain’s success into another classic production. “If you had done [Purple Rain] now, it would almost be like everybody in town would be trying to give you a 10-picture deal,” he said. “Back then, there was an attitude like, ‘It’s okay.’ There was tremendous response, but it wasn’t like someone came to you with a gift. There was a moment where Warner Bros. wanted me to stay. They handed me a script that said Batman. In 1984, the word Batman on a script was influenced by the TV show. In fact, the last scene Batman was carrying an oversize pencil fighting the Joker who had an oversized eraser. I didn’t find its campiness appealing on any level.”
Nonetheless, Magnoli stayed in the Batman game at the time – to a point. “I am talking to the same people I made Purple Rain with,” he noted. “’It should be dark, incredibly frightening, and examine the psychological underpinnings of this.’ They just wanted to make a campy movie. Two years later, the comic book writers of Batman decided to reboot the franchise with The Dark Knight. They knew that they had to become more serious and darker. By 1988, Tim Burton was handed the dark version. By then, I’m managing Prince and I’m in a meeting with Tim Burton for the music on Batman— we did the Batman album. I wanted to do very specific things film[wise] and musically. [Prince] wasn’t interested in spending the time. He ended up making Graffiti Bridge, so it was better for us to split.”

Over three decades into a heralded career, a wiser and more adept Magnoli still believes that the major studios have yet to fully maximize the potential at their disposal. Now more than ever, he believes in the immense potential of allowing creative talents to shine through and break into the ranks such as he did so many years ago. “It was obvious that they still didn’t understand how it got done,” he said of Purple Rain’s immense musical-film crossover success. “It was strange. Eight Mile and La Bamba and Selena; in 30 years, they’ve made four films. It’s a very difficult thing. Most people don’t see it translating into something. There were offers, but now you need to learn how to negotiate this thing called Hollywood. I’ve figured it out, and I’m trying to get an entire slate financed. There are 13 scripts plus a television show. The internet now allows you to be anywhere on the planet.”

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The Spotlight Falls on Thomas A. Walsh, Longtime Art Directors Guild President Article by Scott Essman and Chelsea Beebe

The Spotlight Falls on Thomas A. Walsh, Longtime Art Directors Guild President
Article by Scott Essman and Chelsea Beebe

Production designer Thomas A. Walsh has reached career plateaus to which few art directors can ascend. Born and raised in Los Angeles, California into a show business family, it was pretty clear from the start that Walsh would end up working in some facet of the industry. In 1977, after receiving his Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Theatre Design from the California Institute of the Arts, he began his entertainment industry life as a union stage propmaker and scenic painter.

Walsh has never believed in sticking to just one form of media or even one genre, but instead believes that in order to be the most successful and well-rounded in one’s career, you must strive to reach outside of your comfort zone. Walsh has always firmly stood by the principal that you should “engage in projects which are of value to [your] craft in particular.”.

Since then, not only has Walsh worked on dozens of Emmy and Academy Award-winning and nominated projects, but he also served as the president of Art Directors Guild (ADG) for ten years. “Art directors have seven constituent branches: art directors/production designers, set designers, illustrators, scenic title and graphic designers.”

Although Walsh no longer sits as president of the ADG, I consider myself now a minister without a portfolio,” Walsh said, he still remains a very active member, particularly helping young, fresh talent get their first break into the industry. In the ADG’s first year hosting a new program targeted towards young talent, from 91 applicants, only 4 aspiring art directors were accepted into the program. “It is a very transparent and constructive program,” said Walsh. “These younger people are coming in because they want to. They are catalysts for the future leadership for our organization. Everything is changing so fast, and everyone is scared.”

Walsh believes that, today, it is even more challenging for young talent to break into the industry because a vocal minority of art directors who have been in the business long enough are not willing to make it easy for these new comers; this older guard believe that because they had a difficult time getting into the union and getting established, the same dues-paying period should be applied towards the next generation of art directors. To this shortsightedness Walsh responds “if we don’t represent the majority of the workforce we cannot have the most dominate and relevant presence in the future of the workplace.”

Along with this program for new talent, Walsh is also actively involved in The Art Directors Film Society—a program designed to honor and celebrate the careers and achievements of designers who have made significant contributions to the advancement of excellence in the design of motion pictures. The society gives both industry and non-industry film lovers the chance to take a closer look at the design process of feature films from the designer’s point of view. Currently having completed its 15th season, The Art Director’s Film Society recently held an event in tribute to art directing legend, Harper Goff. Goff was not only Walt Disney’s first choice in designing Disneyland, but he also designed remarkable sets for many successful films including 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Vikings, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971).

When asked about the importance of having these events in order to pay homage to the industry’s great names, Walsh said, “We are in collaboration with the Motion Picture Academy who are part of an oral history collection of all the principal crafts represented by the Academy. This is an industry that doesn’t value its past [as much as some facets of the business]… we have to chronicle the story before it’s gone.”

Ever increasingly, art direction in contemporary film projects utilizes digital technologies: something Walsh is not necessarily opposed to, but believes is taking over the industry in a way that does not always allow for the best stories or storytelling. “Only a fool would dismiss digital technologies—they are here to stay and give us all sorts of possibilities that we could never before consider,” Walsh explained. “These are tools, and with any craftsperson, you use the right tools for the right purpose.”

As Walsh described, having these new technologies and the ability to tell stories set in worlds that cannot exist in reality is an certain asset to the film industry; however, because these technologies are being so overused, many stories which do not require this type of technology are not receiving the chance to be told, simply because studios do not believe these films have the potential to make as much money. This is also one of the primary reasons why the format of television has changed so dramatically over the years as this technology has continued to develop. “They will always need physical sets just as they will always need physical actors,” said Walsh, “or then you are making an animated movie… filmmakers are telling their stories in television with something as good as if it was a feature. They are still trying to figure it out and monetize it. No one format will be the dominant format. The biggest problem is that the studios aren’t managed by filmmakers who are passionate about making movies. It seems for many that their passion is about making personal fortunes and amassing all of the trappings, none of which will endure like a great story told well can and will.”

Alas, the passing sands of time will determine the directions in which the Art Directors Guild will head; however, the one thing that is known is that Thomas Walsh will continue to passionately lead and mentor current and future art directors regardless of what transpires within the industry.

Dan Kramer on Edge of Tomorrow’s Visual Effects – By Scott Essman and Osahon Irabor

Dan Kramer on Edge of Tomorrow’s Visual Effects
July 15, 2014 | By Scott Essman and Osahon Irabor

Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow
Tom Cruise has been facilitating starring vehicles for himself seemingly once a year now for the better part of the past decade. This year, he has embraced a much darker, grittier movie. Edge of Tomorrow, the film adaptation of author Hiroshi Sakurazaka‘s novel All You Need Is Kill, directed by Doug Liman and starring Cruise and Emily Blunt, portrays the recurring struggles Cruise’s character must face in order to fend off an invasion from an alien race known as the “Mimics.” The film employs elements of suspense present in previous Liman films, mated with a sci-fi “time-loop” plot sure to remind audiences of Groundhog Day. To bring this concept to life, Liman needed to entrust much of his film’s visual fate to the able hands of a renowned staff. Enter Daniel Kramer, VFX supervisor for Sony Pictures Imageworks. Kramer, a veteran visual effects artist, has been hailed for his past work on films such as Independence Day, Watchmen, and Spider-Man. With Kramer at the helm, Sony Pictures Imageworks would be tasked with bringing the majority of Edge of Tomorrow‘s visual effects sequences to life. With help from supervisor Nick Davis (The Dark Night), Kramer began immediate work on creating the conceptual art for the film.

LR-2-rub2610_comp_v45_2kun_qt8.1017“When I came on, quite a bit of work had already been done to figure out what the opening landing shot would look like,” Kramer said. “We were brought on right at the time when they first started shooting. I had finished Hotel Transylvania and found out that we landed the job. I had to get on set really quick, because they had a lot of the previews and concept designs done already. We had seen this when it was proposed to us.”

For Kramer, the challenge would be to develop graphics for art director, Neil Lamont, while Liman was still working through the script.“The script was ever-evolving,” Kramer recalled. “Doug Liman was finding his way through the script and story. The third act was not fleshed out when we started working on it. We didn’t know what the alien looked like. It ended up being different while we were shooting.”

Building a memorable action sequence is no easy task, and Kramer and his Imageworks team needed to create a variety of items that would be appropriate for the opening action sequence in the hopes that there would be an organic sense of continuity throughout the film.“We worked closely on the layout and littered the beach with dead bodies, planes being hit, and spaceships falling from the sky,” Kramer described. “They didn’t know the tone of the movie at that time. I worked on location with Nick for a couple of months. Imageworks was responsible for the main two acts – the Heathrow work and extension as well as the beach shots, trailer park and helicopter in the barn. That was all done at Leavesden Studios in London. Then, we embarked on assets [including] semi-automated guns that come off of his back as he gets a little bit better. We got designs for the ships, huge landing vehicles, boats and aircraft carriers. We got a list of everything we needed to build. We modeled those when I was on location. The DFX [supervisor, Ken Hahn] helped out organizing the efforts in Culver City.”

LR-1-rub2160_comp_v26_2kun_qt8.1031During the asset building process, Kramer and his team were able to create the appearance of a convincing war without tailoring scenes to any one specific shot. It was a technique that proved efficient. “It’s a very long process to build the assets to get to the point of rendering a shot,” Kramer explained. “We made a lo-res proxy version of each of them. We got a scan of the beach and built an environment. We gave versions to the art department. We got plates from production, got those 3D match-moved and loaded into our layout. The action was so disorienting that we could get away with murder as far as continuity goes. We had tons of boats landing on the beach as they dropped off troops and left, as well as crowds of troops running up the beach. The layout department built up a general war action sequence.”

As most big action films shoot against green, SPI has a pipeline in place for adding background elements to live-action plates with greenscreen backgrounds. “We populated our CG world where the set stopped and the greenscreen started,” Kramer stated. “By doing that, we could then load in the match-move cameras for a sequence. We had a convincing war without tailoring anything for any one specific shot. We can stick a dead body in the plate or a hole in the plate where we can put in some CG guys or have a tank drive through. That was choreographed and puzzled for each shot. We had assets, pre-canned clips we could drop in. A lot of it was big gas explosions, giant plumes of smoke rising, javelins rising through the air, matching live-action reference on set, making little clips of animation and rendering them from different angles.”

LR-3-crm0710_comp_v93_2kun_qt8.1056By merging live-action effects with CGI rendered visuals, Kramer and his team were able to combine the two elements seamlessly into the film. “By combining live-action, pyro, and digital versions of pyro, we could generate more views of the different explosions,” he said. “They could start layering them in and matting them into each scene. In addition to the live-action pyro and generated pyro that we created, we had destruction clips. A CG Jeep ramming into a wall as we rendered it from many different angles. A compositor would pick the appropriate clip and track it into a shot. By reusing the clips over and over again in 2D, we could fill them up with assets.”

For Kramer, being able to meet industry standards under strict deadlines, while collaborating with two other CG supervisors across the pond, would prove testing. “We had a year from the time I showed up at Leavesden to the time we wrapped things up,” Kramer recollected. “The actual time working on shots was much more compressed as we spent a lot of time building up assets. We had 130 [crew] credits, including production people and support staff in addition to artists and compositors. We had two different CG supervisors each with a team of 15 doing all of the beach shots. We only had one unit responsible for lighting and composition even though we needed three.”

LR-h-hpa0360_comp_v172_2kun_qt8.1074A common misconception about Hollywood is that special talent gets discovered and foisted into prominence overnight. For Kramer, becoming a visual effects supervisor in the movie industry was all about the steep and steady climb.

“I’ve been here since 2000,” he said. “I was a generalist at VisionArt in Santa Monica [for] eight years where I started as an intern. We worked on Independence Day, Godzilla and Deep Space Nine. We were doing a lot of commercial work, TV and eventually getting into movies. At SPI, I was a Houdini animator. I came up through the ranks.”

As a result of his 22-year tenure in Hollywood, Kramer knew the necessary expectations of going into Edge of Tomorrow. “You want to give each supervisor a sequence that stands out on its own,” Kramer noted. “The beach was such a huge component, because we had to split it across two [supervised] teams. We pulled the lighting team that fed the compositing team. Now we had compositors taking all the elements and putting them together. It’s not that big of a task considering other projects that they’ve been doing.”

Using iTView software, a digital sharing tool, Kramer established a streamlined approach that benefited the editorial process. “Nick Davis, the overall supervisor, was in London with Doug Liman doing editorial and posts,” Kramer explained. “Using our own viewing software, iTView, we remotely loaded up shots in full 2K resolution so he could see what we were doing in a controlled environment. Going through shots and getting feedback from Nick was key even though we were spread out among two different locations. The compositing team or lighting team would come in and show work that was rendered overnight – modeling, texturing, animation and lighting, compositing. We spent 8 to 12 hours in a dark room looking at images and giving feedback to teams. Most of the artists are in that room, or we are doing it through iTView synced into the same session. Artists at their desks can dial-in and be a part of the rounds. Sometimes you are talking to hundreds of artists in a remotely-detached sensory-deprived environment all day long.”

LR-T-cat0960_comp_v15_2kun_qt8.1042Along with using iTView as a collaborative tool, Kramer found editorial meetings amongst supervisors as the most effective way to flush out excess material. “We worked with Nick Davis in London as we presented to Doug who came to L.A. and sat in on reviews,” stated Kramer. “At one point, they get off the beach and get into a trailer park area. As they are driving through that trailer park sequence, there’s a hint that there’s some Mimics around. We built CG trailer homes to be destroyed with mimics ripping through those homes. All of that, at some point, got scrapped as they realized the movie was going [fast] the whole time. From the time they arrived on the beach to the time they got off the beach, there was relentless action which was taken out. One supervisor did the Heathrow sequence, another did the trailer park and barn sequence, and one other took over the lighting and look development. A lot of moving parts; you need superstar supervisors who can work autonomously.”

Through simple test shots and trials, Kramer worked alongside the production team to add balance to the on-screen action. In the end, he was happy with the live-action component of the production. “It was impressive to be on set,” he said. “Gas explosions, which would burn black smoke columns into the sky, mortars, air cannons filled with foam rocks and dirt. It was clear that they wanted to go over the top. When we got the first couple of shots, we tried things out and ran them by Nick Davis and Doug. We kept adding and adding. An explosion might have taken your eye away from the action, but not because it was too much destruction.”

By using his Mimic models sparingly, Kramer found that he could add a dangerous mystique, and invisible presence to the aliens while still portraying a sense of present danger in the characters. “For much of the shots, you don’t see the aliens at all,” Kramer conveyed. “The projectiles in the air were javelins shot at our soldiers – something that was unpredictable and alien. Once we came up with that look, we started littering the sky with the javelins. At any moment the guy next to you could get hit.”

When the Mimic models were in focus, bringing Sakurazaka’s aliens to life posed a unique challenge for Kramer and his team, because so many different versions of the aliens had been designed.“A lot of design work on the aliens had been done, but nothing had been settled upon,” revealed Kramer. “The early one was a quadruped with tentacles wrapped around the limbs – an alien with no solid form at all, completely made out of tentacles. This character had no specific form; there wasn’t a set number of limbs or volume for his body.”

Defying their names, Kramer designed the Mimics to be highly atypical in form, which led to some unique motion challenges. “The tentacles could reform and reconfigure into these shapes based on where it needed to go or who it needed to kill,” Kramer related “It was complicated to build and animate. Normally an alien has bones and flesh. You build that model and run it around. This wasn’t like that. We knew that the character was complicated. We had a technical animator write a plug-in to handle all of the tentacles. He devised the system which was a center curve in animation software. I wanted 20 tentacles intertwined, twisted, contracted together, to writhe against each other. The plug-in knew the radius of every tentacle. If one on the inside grew or slipped, the tentacles above it moved in reaction.”

The further implementation of project-specific software paid dividends for the project, allowing Kramer and his crew to give each graphic model a unique look.

“We gave our animator these high-level controls,” Kramer remarked. “How fast do they move? How thick are they? They couldn’t actually animate each individual tentacle. We built a body made out of tentacles and would jam these procedural limbs into the body. Each alien could be truly unique and have a different number of limbs and move independently. Along those tentacles, we would instance chains of stones or glass off of obsidian. They would look angular and sharp and use their limbs as slashing or stabbing weapons.”

Keeping the aliens faithful to the source material and Liman’s vision, Kramer sold the aliens’ remarkable speed through environmental consistency.

“Doug wanted it to really be different,” Kramer commented. “Always moving and writhing. He wanted them to move incredibly fast, subverting time and space when they move. I was worried that any time you have something moving that fast, it tends to look digital. As long as we paired it with effects animation and burst sand off of the character, it became more believable that it moved that fast and made it a little more mysterious.”

As it is no secret that visual effects outfits have to compete for projects and films, with a film the scope of Edge of Tomorrow requiring a great deal of collaboration, spreading the show amongst multiple vendors could have been tenuous. However, for Kramer, working alongside other effects companies on this film was an amicable process. “Today, more and more, vendors are rendering characters [together],” he said. “In our case, a lot of the assets that we needed were created by other vendors. We built the digital double and exo-suits for the characters. We built drop ships, Mimics, and anything that was shared. Framestore had to build a procedural system to replicate what we were doing. We sent them the digital exo-suits and [the lead characters of Cage and Rita]. We also had Cinesite who did the sparring scene shots. We shared as much as we possibly could with them and tried to be accommodating. We had a good working relationship with external vendors.”

Edge of Tomorrow is currently in general release in theaters.

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Hollywood Heartache

Hollywood Heartache

A lifelong love affair with the magic of the silver screen has led Scott Essman to La Verne, where he provides his students with expert insight about filmmaking.


As a kid, adjunct communications professor, Scott Essman was fascinated by the eclectic and parallel world created by movies and the film industry. He had a peculiar interest, uncommon for kids his age. He would not get up and walk off when the words “The End” would appear on screen. The movie was not over for him.

The credits were yet to come and he would patiently wait in his seat, reading all the names of the cast and crew. Every so often he would jump at the fact that he recognized a director, writer or producer from another movie and that he’d made the connection.

Now, after 19 years of a career in film writing, editing and teaching, he has met and interviewed the “big shots” he once admired as a kid. James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are just some of the world-renowned directors who have crossed his path. It is safe to say that Scott Essman knows his way around Hollywood and, in his January term class, “Hollywood in La Verne,” he lets the students walk into this world.

“The idea is to have writers, producers, directors and other people involved in the creations of films come in, show their movies, and then have a Q&A with the person and open it up to students,” said Don Pollock, professor of Communications. The three-and-a-half-hour class that takes place in the Arts and Communications Building at La Verne is far from boring for the students who eagerly ask and listen to the guest speakers talk about their films.

“This is basically a meet- the-film-maker class,” Pollock said.

For Essman, the class is handled and taught as a craft. Students learn some theoretical aspects of films such as editing, visual effects and writing, but the focus is mainly on the practical aspect. Every session, the students are shown a screening of a full-length movie, a documentary, or a short film, which is followed by meeting the creator behind it.

“We are talking about the reality of what these people have done professionally,” Essman said. “How they’ve gone about what they do and what has been successful for them. It’s a very practical type of class, rather than a theoretical class. Our students are really learning exactly what these people did that led to them having a career.”

As soon as the movie ends, Essman introduces the guest speaker and continues to have a Q&A session in front of the class. His strong interviewing skills arise from the naturally social and inquisitive personality he got, he says, from his mother.

“I am so curious, whenever I get someone artistic — I don’t care if they are musician, filmmaker or actor — I immediately ask a lot of questions,” Essman said. “Even if people aren’t in the arts necessarily, I always want to know more about them. I’m inquisitive as a personality type.”

It took Essman 10 years after earning his undergraduate degree from USC to shape his career around the film industry.

“I was 29 and I decided I loved the field of entertainment, filmmaking and creativity. I love it too much to just be passive, just be an audience member my whole life. I decided to be active,” Essman said. He says he took the initiative and started from scratch.

Not having the benefits of the internet or social media in 1995, Essman chose an old-fashioned way of communicating and networking: He began looking people up from the industry in phonebooks and calling them to schedule interviews. His interviews consequently led to writing articles about the people he met or movies he watched.

An avid writer since college, Essman has written articles and stories for international and national film magazines such as, “Creative Screenwriting,” “Cinefex,” “Cinemaeditor,” “Below the Line News,” and “L’Ecran Fantastique,” a French movie magazine. Essman has produced more than 500 magazine articles in the past 20 years. Such depth of research and reporting is reflected in his questions toward the guest speakers in his class.

The students listen intently as Essman asks producer and visual effects editor, Van Ling, to recall how as a recently out-of-college student from USC he became the Research and Creative Assistant to James Cameron in the movie “The Abyss.” As a result of a dare by a fellow film student, Ling built a seven-and-a-half-foot tall suit with mechanical arms. “On Halloween, 1986, I called [James Cameron’s production company] and I said: ‘Do you have jobs?’ They said: ‘No, we don’t have anything right now.’ I said: ‘By the way, I built a powerloader.’ They said, ‘Come on down and show it to us tomorrow.’”

In 2004, Essman received a master’s degree in Educational Multimedia from California State University and in 2009 he started teaching at La Verne. He has written books and feature-length and short-film scripts. He wrote and directed the animated short “Dox E. Dog,” and the video short “Trane and Miles,” for which he won the Audience Choice Award at the 909 Film Festival and an Award of Merit at the Best International Shorts Competition in San Diego.

Essman is a full-time teacher at the Art Institute in Orange County and also teaches an Introduction to Mass Media course at La Verne. However, it is the “Hollywood in La Verne” class that allows a wide range of students to partake and enjoy regardless of their major.

“I hope they are gaining what anyone would get from an elective class, which is knowledge about something in their field they didn’t previously know,” Essman said.

For senior and philosophy major, Alon Dina, the class has been a motivational tool.

“It taught me that if you really want to do something and be like these guys, you have to put your whole foot into it,” Dina said.

Fifteen guest speakers were scheduled for the January term class, among them , “Dead Poets Society” screenwriter Tom Schulman, and “Stargate” visual effects supervisor Jeffrey A. Okun.

“The program is about developing critical thinking skills,” Pollock said. “To be able to see a movie and then talk to somebody who is a creator, you begin to understand a little bit more about the process that goes into making films.”

Sophomore communications major Bianca Zapata said the class has made her more critical toward what she watches.

“Now, when I watch TV, I am thinking: ‘Oh they are not holding the camera right or they are not doing this, or look at how they are standing,’” she said. “I am more aware of what is actually happening on the scene, not just watching and listening to it.”

Essman encourages his students to ask analytical and introspective questions to the guest speakers. He distinguishes the importance of the “why” questions, as opposed to the “how.”

“In art, the ‘how’ is kind of simple, you know, you can teach anyone how to use a computer,” Essman said. “But some of the students now in these classes are asking why, and when the students start asking that, they get much better answers, as the ‘why’ is getting inside the mind of the person.”

Regardless of their major or interest, the “Hollywood in La Verne” class opens doors to students and allows them to view film and art as another of communication and expression.

“I think watching movies can give you the greatest lesson about life,” Dina said, “because by observing, you are experiencing it.”

— Story by Bernarda Carranza

Milius Speaks – Filmmaker John Milius is Back with a Vengeance

Milius Speaks – Filmmaker John Milius is Back with a Vengeance

When John Milius burst on the scene out of USC’s famed film school, he quickly became one of the most sought-after voices as a screenwriter. Later becoming a director, he either wrote or directed some of the most notable films of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s before a recent debilitating stroke that left his speech and memory affected. Now, Milius, who turns 70 this year, is the subject of an engrossing new Epix documentary created by co-directors Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson. Here he answers questions spanning his entire Hollywood career.

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