IR Film Review: STAR WARS – EPISODE IX – THE RISE OF SKYWALKER [Lucasfilm/Disney]

Following any divergence such as was “The Last Jedi” there can be a sense of reckoning. In the first “Star Wars” trilogy not overseen by one person (i.e. Lucas) there is bound to be conflict of conception. Colin Trevorrow was originally supposed to do this segmentation and obvious a wisp of his story structure remains. But as Adam Driver alluded, this path was always the correct one and the point discussed from the beginning. The film here feels right. It is the best made of this trilogy of films mating some of the basic risks that Abrams might have avoided with “Force Awakens” which felt infinitely too safe but also keying into aspects of what fans would like to see.

“The Rise Of Skywalker” is dense and moving. And yet there are holes. Now granted in most movies of this scale, there is a certain level of disbelief allowed. But this is Star Wars. The reality is director JJ Abrams had a shorter time to make this, close up as many loose ends as he could and keep the release date Disney set. He did. And to make the film as entertaining as it is with some specific moments that needed to work while integrating Leia and giving a sense of closure, this one feels more steady.

Rian Johnson’s previous film which had a couple spots which were brilliant also drifted too much into the metaphors and politics, which of course is part of it but also what bogged down many elements of the prequel trilogy. There is no exact formula with these movies that make them work no matter what. These films are a huge undertaking. “Empire Strikes Back” didn’t look effortless. There are clunky elements in that too but time is the true test. The issue here is that you see the work but the bridges made to get there don’t have time to breathe and have a lack of connection. The dichotomy of what everybody feels and how they display it is very anachronistic almost making it seemed forced. Daisy Ridley as Rey is a perfect vessel but she always seems too pained though her voyage is not meant to be easy. When you see joy in her, it is mired in sadness which is part of the structure. The intention is there but it is all about plot. Rey wants to find balance. Every act she commits is towards this. But impulse is her enemy which is the entire progression. But balance is the key word.

In keeping the main three stars together most of the time in this installment, it creates a better dynamic considering how different all of them are. This is why the original film worked between Han, Luke & Leia. Chewie had a better part then. Here even that character is used more in the vein of nostalgia but Abrams uses that as much as he can. Poe as a character is still underdeveloped. He was never supposed to be a Han Solo and yet there is never a sense that he nor Finn is a general per se. They still have the same fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants mantra but their stakes never feel fully realized. “The Last Jedi” was better at doing this and for inherent iconic image. But again didn’t move like this. No Canto Bright to bog the trajectory down.

Adam Driver, comparatively as a character, is truly the only one that comes close to full realization as Kylo Ren but again his character needs to serve the plot as well. One scene in particular really makes it sing and it was inherent that it need to happen, despite it being more of a metaphor per se. But inherently that is what Star Wars is about. Without giving away spoilers, this scene offers the perspective which makes everything acceptable. Star Wars was and is about archetypes. The path could only truly be one way. The ideal it comes back to is that this is entertainment and the film thrills. Case closed.

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By Tim Wassberg

IR In-The-Trenches: OVERLORD [Paramount Home Entertainment]

Finality, Character & Texture: The ABC Winter 2010 TCA Press Tour – Feature

ABC has show an ability for a specific cross-section of shows that push the envelope. While some like “Pushing Daisies” and “Better Off Ted” sometimes start to fall along the wayside, other successes like “Castle”, “Cougar Town” and “Modern Family” show that by angling the formula to a not-set portrayal, one can reap great awards. However with “Flash Forward” not performing as high as thought, the behemoth of “Lost” accelerates into its final season.

Lost The influx of many of the cast members for the final season were met with a thundering round of applause for this show who, in many ways, captured the zeitgeist the way few other shows in the past couple years have been able to do.

Emile de Ravin, who plays the returning Claire who had been missing since we saw her in Jacob’s hut a few seasons back, mentioned that they have seven more episodes to film in Hawaii. Her fondest moments have been when the whole cast has been together because of its family connotations though when she read the pilot back in the beginning, it took 3 times before it made any sense.

Evangeline Lilly, who was picked out of obscurity to play Kate, admits that as she was coming out for these final interviews, she knew she was going to “cry like a baby when it ends”. One of the aspects people don’t know is how hard filming the show can be. For her, the most lingering moments that stay in her mind come from the first season especially in the scenes when Claire gave birth and Boone died. That specific episode for her “culminated everything we were talking about”. The most intrinsic point for her was trying to find Kate as a character. Also being on Hawaii shooting can be a double-edged sword (in her estimation). She says “living in paradise is a little bit of a prison” because “when we’re on the island, we are on the island” but there is “an innate sense of freedom now that we are anticipating the end”.

Daniel Dae Kim, whose character Jin, morphed from a non-English speaking character to utterly subtle feats of discourse, says that the moment for him that defined the show was when they were launching the raft in the first season because that provided a culmination of thought. Now with the 6th season, the narrative style is again changing somewhat which distinctly makes it all the more challenging.

Josh Holloway, who created one of the most nuanced con-men in TV history, with the nickname-spewing Sawyer, says the whole experience has been incredible but there has been something about this last year. He admits a certain propensity for group scenes. He says they take two or three days to film but if you position yourself right, that is key, and admits he has gotten very good at that. For him, the premiere this year felt big like a finale which points for an interesting end to come. He thinks back to when he read the original pilot. His first impression was that Sawyer “was an asshole” and that he, as an actor” had “to figure out how to stay alive” because “unless [Sawyer] became something different, he might die soon”. He parallels the aspect of Kate explaining “as Evy says, to play a character within a place, you have to explore new character perspectives”. Josh’s observation of this man becomes that “Sawyer has been walking the fine line of humanity but retaining his edge”. This comes on the aspect of the writers putting him through every possible situation, both emotionally and physically. The scariest thing of all was “the whole Juliet thing”. He thought the audience might reject those two characters getting together because it was “discovering his humanity while being salty”. He admits that many of the greatest points of his life happened during the show: “validation as an actor, marrying, having a baby, my first home”.

Michael Emerson, who emerged in later seasons as a major character in Benjamin Linus, says that, with a show like “Lost”, it is better to be in the dark adding that “it is nice not to be burdened with the secret” because “that seems to get in the way”. In terms of the moments he remembers most, he jokes “that I have alot of fond memories of breathless confrontations in small rooms”. He says the Whidmore Bedroom and Jacob scenes are “scary and I love them”. He also mentions a scene when he and Sawyer are on a cliff and trading Steinbeck quotes all the while with Ben saying “I have a rabbit in my backpack”. In terms of the ending of season five, he thought it to be a master move adding “that it was a two-part cliffhanger but sufficiently mind-bending”. He ultimately sees Ben “as a character that reacts in a calculated way but once in while acts in a childishly impulsive way”.

Terry O’Quinn, who undertakes the enigma of Locke, says that he found out that he wasn’t real Locke during last season about a month before the episode aired, indicating that he was completely unaware to the fact for most of last season. For him, there is no true special moment in the series though he remembers when they were hanging out between a break in filming listening to Naveen Andrews playing guitar under the famous Banyan tree. He also reflects back to the pilot with JJ telling him that at first in the beginning with Locke there wouldn’t be alot but later on there would be.

Damon Lindelof, who along with fellow executive producer Carlton Cuse, have become the think tank of “Lost” after the departure of co-creator JJ Abrams, says that the idea of ending with the 6th season is “doing it while we still care” calling “Lost” “a once-in-a-career experience”. ABC allowing them to end the series on these specific terms is what Damon terms “a tremendous gift”. He echoes Evangeline in that they can’t believe it is coming to an end. In terms of what they tell the actors in terms of the story, he jokes that “quite honestly, we don’t speak to them at all”. He uses the example that if they told Terry O’Quinn (who plays Locke) that he was actually playing a guy from 1000 years ago, it would completely alter the approach. For Lindelof, the most memorable points in the show are the bridging aspects in creating these connections. For the following seasons, they usually start writing in the summer time but the inherent challenge always was walking the bridge, even when time travel came into play. In terms of the finale, he says with a wry smile: “Get ready to scratch your heads America”.

Lindelof says the major shift since the show started is informational because of the minutae that the fans follow vigorously. The biggest obstacle is to “guarantee a shitty ending” to “Lost”. For him, “the worst ending we could provide is a safe ending” but “you can’t take a risk just to take a risk” because ultimately in respect they “have no excuse to say anything other than ‘this is the way we wanted it to end'”. He admits that there is hope on their parts to wow the audience with the finite possibilities of the finale because “it wouldn’t be ‘Lost’ if it wasn’t an ongoing or active debate”. In terms of story for the final season, “there is an inherent process that when ending something, you always think about the beginning. He reflects on an earlier comment by Josh about the essence of new character perspectives because “you want to show the audience the before of where the characters were then”. He says he does reflect on what the legacy of the show will be but realizes that in the weeks after the series finale airs, the only thing people will be thinking about is just that episode. He makes a comparison to “The Sopranos” because people remember absolutely everything about the diner scene and the fade to black. The end always moves in mysterious ways.

Carlton Cuse, who runs the show with Damon, says that “we came up with the final image of the show in the first season but we started to add elements to that as we went along towards the end point”. The character stuff, he adds, works itself out as you go along but that the process of ending the show was fun because, as in many seasons before, the actors didn’t know where it was going beyond the next given script. The network has not pressured them for a spin-off but definitely says that “we are ending this story”. As far as the moment he remembers most, it involved Jack swimming out with the dog to save the drowning girl. In terms of the new season, the premiere picks up exactly where the finale last season left off. He agrees that they have been very circumspect about what actually might be going on in the 6th season. Jack and Farraday, he says, believe that the bomb going off might reset everything. He warns that not every question will be answered because they still want to maintain a fundamental sense of mystery.

Executive Briefing: Stephen McPherson The enigmatic and charming head of ABC entertainment actually made a point of introducing the “Lost” cast stating that many of the crew and some of the cast were still in Hawaii shooting but that “we look forward to finishing the journey”.

He recollects that when they were shooting the pilot for “Lost”, “with Evangeline, it came down to 24 hours before” when they barely got her work visa cleared from Canada. He credits Abrams and Lindelof for having a plan and a mythology in what “arguably will be one of the most influential shows of the decade”. He compares the season premiere “to nothing different than a gigantic movie” adding that “they put all they spend on the screen”.

In terms of ABC’s fall, McPherson announced the picks up of “Cougar Town”, “Modern Family” and “The Middle” for next season. No decisions, he says, have been made yet on “Hank” or “Better Off Ted” while “Castle” is their highest performing repeat show saying that, with the Alyssa Milano episode, the show “has met its stride” adding that he “hears so much anecdotally about that show”. To that point, he says that many “shows are alchemy to some extent”. With “Modern Family”, the pitch was simply “a big family”.

In terms of two new and expensive shows finding their footing, McPherson says, first off, with “V”, they always intended it to be in chapters but that production issues came into play. With “Flash Forward”, he said, it was a bit different because the repeat viewers didn’t seem to be coming back. The show’s reaction has to be supportive of its production. That is why they did a big push about bring “Flash Forward” back while making “V” more independent of that conversation. He sees a similar possibility in the upcoming “Happy Town” because it is also “serialized and event” but “honestly it all comes down to how it performs in the end” adding that they don’t have a set premiere date as of yet.

In terms of the response on the ongoing NBC difficulties, he says that “seeing a great network tumble is not something we revel in” because “it is disconcerting to see that happening in the industry”. That said, McPherson states that they are actually up 8% in their 10pm slots because the inherent situation has put “an emphasis on creative shows” adding that “we are very happy with the way things have gone down.”

The Deep End One of the few new shows that ABC is bringing forth is this lawyer drama which uses the rookie perception to show this cutthroat world in a new era.

Exec Producer David Hemingson, whose experience in the legal world provided the basis for the series, calls it “a confluence of circumstances” since “the show mirrors the beginning of my career. Billy Zane, as the venemous Cliff Huddle, calls his character “a shark” with a personality “always moving…always calculating”. He sees Cliff as operating on his own code because even though he and his wife are very passionate, he can’t keep his hands off of everybody else so he is interested how they handle his infidelity.

Clancy Brown, an actor best known for his genre turns in “Highlander” and “Starship Troopers” and recently mentioned as a front runner for the movie adaptation of “Lobo”, sees the story as a reflection of present day mediaries in that “you just look at the headlines and see the struggles between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law”. Matt Long, embodying series lead Dylan Hewitt who must deal with attacks on all sides, used lawyers in his family as reference but understood the key to the character is “to add to the situation but not add to what the hell is going on” but “it also helps to know what you’re [actually] saying.

Prepping The Image: 2009 Produced By Conference – Los Angeles – Part I

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The Produced By Conference, held for the first time at Sony Studios, gives a look to aspiring producers of where the new technology is going and how to get there. There was a diversity of angles to see from film office to new HD high-end taps to camera packages. One of the more interesting developments has been the use of computers to not just do the visual effects but to actually bring the title to pitch. Now more than ever studios and financiers want to see a visual representation of their investment and where it will go. Two specific sessions spoke to this possibility as well as revealed some interesting tidbits regarding recent developments.

The Collaborative Process of Visual Effects: From Previs To Post Previsualization is becoming an increasingly prevalent element in current film production techniques especially for large production but there is a chain of command in what each level might do. According to the panel, there are six different iterations: pre-vis, pitch vis, technical pre-vis, onset pre-vis, post vis and d-vis. David Morin, a technologist at Autodesk, first approaches the history of pre-vis. First it is sheer numbers. 49% of all box office receipts come from some sort of visual effects elements created in the computer. The percentage is up 5% from 2007. The timeline of pre-vis shows where it has come from. It was first used with action figures in a low tech version to plan the bike chase for “Return Of The Jedi” in 1983. In 1986, vector graphics were used to pre-vis for “The Boy Who Could Fly”. The next jump up  was in 1992 and involved more motion animation done by Frank Foster at Sony Imageworks for the car chase in “Striking Distance”. The flying sequence for “Judge Dredd” only two years later combined animation and the increasing propensity of vector. “Starship Troopers” in 1997 was the first pre-vis situation that was able to integrate camera movement. The big leap forward happened in 1999 with David Dozoretz in the design of the pod race as a pre-vis animatic for “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace”. “Fight Club”, the same year had sequences pre-vised by Colin Green at Pixel Liberation Front for the airline destruction sequence in which colors coded set extensions and layers. Then 3 years later virtual camera work for invisible effects was again integrated by Colin Green in pre-vizing “Panic Room”, again for director David Fincher. This is where the aspects of what are possible with this process begin.

Gale Ann Hurd, producer of “Terminator” and “Aliens”, then discussed “pitch vis”. The key she says is that in this current marketplace the reality is that you still need to pitch your product and set it up. Pitch Vis is especially good if you are working with first time filmmakers. You can show the financiers and the studio, if need be, the filmmaker’s sensibility through these animations and show how he/she can move the camera albeit in a virtual environment. She uses the example that she is currently working with a first time filmmaker who is a graphic novelist looking to make a debut as a feature director. They are working on pre-vis with a company called Image Engine who did work on “Fantastic Four 2” to create visuals to use as a pitch for a project entitled “The Hunted”.

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Ron Frankel, President of Proof, next approached the basis of technical pre-vis. The definition that they had come to structure involves a collaborative process that generates preliminary versions of shots or sequences. The aspect of cost is always of interest to filmmakers. It depends how much needs to be done. A whole film with a budget of 15 million dollars will cost about $50,000 to pre-vis. Frankel uses the example of the film “21” which only needed certain things done cost about $4000 in pre-vis work. His prevalent example was the work he did in technical pre-vis on “World Trade Center” working with director Oliver Stone. One of the first things he did was create a 3D model of the Towers when they fell textured with photographs. It was not supposed to be referenced as a shot. It instead gave context to where the rescue workers within the film were at any given time. The moving tech-vis goes above from a moving target to show how these workers ended up in essence where they were trapped. A majority of the work was still frames of the environment to give perspective. There was a real effort for historical accuracy which acted as quite a reality check according to Frankel. He shows a shot that Oliver had him work on while they were on set in Marina del Rey where the camera pulls out over the island. The Double Negative completed VFX looked very similar to the actual tech-vis on the day. Oliver got to see it on the day so he knew what he was getting.

Alex McDowell, Production Designer most recently on “Watchmen”, discussed the essence of “d-vis” which by common sense incorporates design elements.  Design visualization tests practical and virtual locations in relation to camera. He first worked with pre-vis with Director David Fincher on “Fight Club”. Pre-vis was brought in initially to get more control over the visual effects. He used a grid to show the balance of different departments working and how the visualization allows them to function independently. The concept elements of art follow into d-vis which is congruent with set and 3D design. From here the pipeline follows into set construction and decoration. For his most recent project with “Watchmen”, the art department started off with a concept paintings. They derived this perspective from the initial pre-vis as well as distance elements from Google Earth. This helped with the initial physics of The Comedian’s apartment and how much needed to be constructed versus the amount of CGI facades that extended beyond and more specifically downwards. This d-vis also using colors allows one to see how much practical location will work and the actual cut off where digital extensions begin. D-Vis allows precise placement in terms of actual measurements. They built three city blocks in Vancouver to stand in for NY. The painting in pre-vis uses color coding which can be broken down to the crew. Another example for use of pre-vis in “Watchmen” was the Owl Ship, even though it was actually built full size (I actually did a stand up in it at the “Watchmen” junket). The CG model was done in d-vis to get director approval. The key especially when the Owl Ship was integrated into the hangar at Nite Owl II’s home base was that the concept art had to be data accurate.

Chris Edwards, CEO of The Third Floor Pre-Vis Studio explored technical pre-vis as well. Technical pre-vis incorporates a generated and accurate camera, lighting, design and scene layout. The first example he cites that they worked on was “Valykrie” where everything was scaled in a real world environment. Instead of using the actual template, they used the essence of planning out the move in the animation incorporating the perspective of the soundstage using green screen breakdown as well as camera placement and movement. The key is to place a diagramming tool that measures distance from both the top and side views. This measurement also takes into account the velocity of camera and actors at any given point. Usually this kind of tech pre-vis can be displayed in the matte box of the camera (precisely in the heads up display). The aspects of different layers of compositing can also be integrated to show the different elements at play.

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Another example Edwards showed was an overhead tech pre-vis showing the swath of a camera and what it sees while moving down the street in the trailer tease elements for “Cloverfield”. Edwards also addresses post-vis in congruence. It combines digital elements and production photography to validate and aid in the footage selection process. An example he offers in this segue is from “Prince Caspian” for the Walt Disney Company. The River God sequence in that movie was going to be cut. The director had to find a way to somehow justify the sequence to the studio. What ended up being done is that the animation from the pre-vis was comped into the sequence with the live action and bolstered the studios confidence. In this instance and others, Edwards says that post-vis helps strengthen a sequence before the final FX. It also helps extensively when showing to test audiences when the final FX aren’t done. VFX producers can also use post-vis as a bidding tool and focus efforts.

Dan Gregoire, CEO of Halon Entertainment, focused his perceptions on onset pre-vis. The definition of onset pre-vis is to create a real time visualization on location to help the director evaluated captured imagery. The first interaction he had was when they were working on “THX-1138” for the DVD Director’s Cut. They were able to do 54 set ups in one day. Pre-vis made it happen. When he was working on “Revenge Of The Sith” they had a guest director named Steven Spielberg for a couple sequences who changed the mindset of how they could work.

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Dan went to work for Spielberg for “War Of The Worlds”. Spielberg has said that he could not have made the release date for “War” if he had not done pre-vis. On set Dan said there is certain things you need on mobile call: laptop, Maya, Adobe, a table, laser measure and a GPS locater integrated with a digital camera, Google maps and a roving internet connection. He also said you need one extra of everything. He jokes that on “War Of The Worlds” sometimes he had to jump an internet connection from nearby churches. Dan would travel with 1st Unit. The pre-vis on the day allowed Spielberg to make the decision to blow up the bridge which was a big set piece. Before it was simply going to be the destruction of a gas station. Pre-vis made this possible. For the final take down of the pods, Steven could not go to all the locations so they had to do virtual site scouts using pre-vis.Dan went up in a chopper and tasked the scanned footage/pictures into the sequence.

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Dan next worked doing onset pre-vis for Indiana Jones and The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull”. Spielberg found out on this show that the key at times was control the message to all department heads especially if you are shooting at a breakneck pace. Sometimes Spielberg would come up with an idea and poeple would go right to work on it. He didn’t want people to spend money unless he was firm on the idea. Using this kind of pre vis allowed him to dessimate out information to specific people.

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Roger Guyett, VFX Supervisor on “Star Trek” for ILM talked about the importance of pre vis aided by David Dozoretz who showed the pre-vis of the planet dive sequence. It is better to do these pre-vis to see if an actual sequence should be in a movie or not. For “Star Trek”, Guyett says that pre-vis took close to a year. But, for him, looking at pre-vis, the shooting criteria was different and had to be maintained. He wanted to try to do as much in camera as possible. He wanted to be able to shoot in real light and create a natural realism. During this he says that the gimble was always locking up on set so they had to keep replacing the hot heads. To add to this, he also wanted to us minimal green screen and use the sky whenever possible.

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The rub was that the only way they could make it happen is that they would have to realize two locations on two sets in one location. He had to figure out a way to do the weapon platform and the ice world planet on the same location. The way he ended up doing it was shooting at a wide swath of the parking lot at Dodger Stadium where a clear horizon could be seen. JJ Abrams thought he was insane but they made it work. It was just a matter of angle the structure with the pre-vis and the green screen just right.

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The sneak peak at the panel was from Marc Weigert who is the co-producer and VFX Supervisor on 2012, Roland Emmerich’s new action picture about the Mayan prophecy about the end of the world. He brought pictures showing the extensive green screen that was constructed in Vancouver for the shoot. The aspect was to have the flow of green screen on either side of a moving car for a respective chase sequence. The scene he was building up to show involves a 10.5 earthquake hitting Los Angeles. The story set up on the scene is that John Cusack’s limo driver goes to save his kids and his ex-wife and, by extension, her new husband. The pre-vis on the effects that he shows involve the question of how do you create the aspect of such an earthquake? Roland and Marc’s perception seemed to be like a big rolling wave swallowing up everything in its path. The scene itself, which was rough and seemingly had not been shown publicly before, shows Cusack running into his former house and getting his ex-wife (played by Amanda Peet) and their kids into the car just as the earthquake consumes their house. He is driving ahead of  the rolling destruction but just barely as you see houses simply swallowed by the earth. In a short piece of Emmerich’s humor, Cusack gets stuck behind two old ladies in a car who can barely see over the . He eventually drives around them but the old ladies’ car goes headfirst into a big piece of rock. The car heads on but as they turn down a street, cars from a parking garage are being thrown out into their way and right ahead of them the freeway begins to topple over sending more cars careening. Cusack accelerates as he has to clear under one part of the freeway before it completely collapses. He does so but a high rise begins to fall in front of them. There is no way around. I guess he is going in. After applause, Marc says they have 7 or so more weeks of FX work on the film to do. 2012 is being released in November.

The aspect of pre-vis speaks to the aspect of all different types of production. With a high end panel like this with past, present and definitive future experience, the real world applications to producers on this front is quite specific.

Part 2 of our coverage of the 2009 Produced By Conference will explore the intracies of motion capture and its integrations into such systems as pre-vis.