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Re-recording Mixer Mike Prestwood Smith on the Rocketman Soundtrack’s Unique Narrative Engine

Rocketman, Paramount Picture’s cinematic rock opera of Sir Elton John’s life, is as sui generis as the man who inspired it. More a fantasia than a traditional biopic, the film follows a narrative driven by John’s songs, which fracture, mutate, drift, throb and reverberate along with the arc of his emotional journey, informed as much by his over-the-top performative life on stage as by the depths of his personal demons.

Directed by Dexter Fletcher, who brought Bohemian Rhapsody across the finish line and to its resulting four Oscars and $900+ million at the box office, Rocketman stars Welsh actor Taron Egerton and was written by Billy Elliot and War Horse screenwriter Lee Hall. John and his husband, executive producer David Furnish, gave Lee and soundtrack producer Giles Martin, son of iconic Beatles producer George Martin, free rein to reorder the actual chronology of the songs and pair them instead with the inner timeline of John’s story.

The film’s re-recording mixer Mike Prestwood Smith has worked on more than 100 films since the mid-1990s. He was nominated for an Academy Award with the mix team on Captain Phillips and won a BAFTA for Best Sound for Casino Royale. We talked to him about the upside of deadlines, when to go with your gut and the unique challenges and rewards of mixing a picture where sound plays such a pivotal role.

StudioDaily: What is so unique about this film’s score, soundtrack and mix?

Mike Prestwood Smith: In the score, every musical theme and cue is taken from Elton’s music, so you are never out of touch with his music and it is always a part of the story. Whether it’s a big, all-out number with Taron singing or whether it is a top background track we’re using to underpin a montage sequence or whether it’s the score that’s helping us emotionally, all of the music is based around Elton’s wonderful melodies. That also gave us great license and helped us in and out of the fantasy worlds that spring from Elton’s emotional experience. You almost feel as if you’re getting echoes of the songs. You’re hearing them in a detached sort of way, which helps, I think, evoke the feelings that we are exploring all this through his eyes and his experience. That’s the key about this movie and what makes it so different from any other biopic I’ve ever been involved in. It’s not really a straight-up look at events as they happened. It really is a journey into someone’s psyche and addiction and detachment and ultimate redemption. And the whole time, as the audience, you’re seeing and hearing it through his eyes and ears. That was very much our focus for the sound and I think generally speaking, the music did a lot of heavy lifting in all sorts of ways, both in the score and in the tracks that were recorded.

Taron Egerton brings the creative and performative genius of Sir Elton John to life in the film.

Who brought you on to the project and when did you first begin discussions with soundtrack producer Giles Martin?

I came on board early on because of my relationship with Matthew Vaughn (Kingsman: The Golden Circle, The Fantastic Four), one of the producers of the film. I’ve worked on some of his films in the past and he was producing and was keen to get me involved. He and Giles are good buddies, so I got to meet him early on, and we got into conversation right away about how to get this all worked out. Giles was doing all the arranging and orchestrating and was recording all the vocals. I think Elton was very keen, in particular, that whoever was going to play him had to be someone who was going to embrace both the acting and all of his musical performances, including his vocals. They decided pretty early on that whoever was going to play that part would actually be someone who could sing as well as act. And they were lucky enough to get Taron, who was just brilliant.

With that in mind, Giles went to record all of Taron’s vocals and started recording all of the other vocals so that we had them for playback when Dexter started shooting the movie. The plan was to also record live on set so we had options going backwards and forwards during the mix. That’s exactly what happened. Giles and Dexter took the leads in getting all those pre-records done and I came on a bit later on in the game and got mixing it with everything else.

Did actors like Jamie Bell and Richard Madden, who have never sung on-camera before to my knowledge, need convincing?

Yeah, I think Richard said, “There’s no bloody way I’m going to sing!” You can imagine him saying that in his accent! There was definitely a bit of gentle coaxing. The great thing is that Taron had such an infectious commitment to the role that everyone was buoyed by that. I think everyone else really stepped up, or in Richard’s case, relented [laughs], and gave their best performance vocally because Taron was such a great leader. So yes, Jamie and Richard and everyone else who sings in the film did their own performances and I think they all did a great job of it.

Soundtrack producer Giles Martin coaxed many of the actors who had never sung on camera before, like Richard Madden, right, who plays John’s manager and lover John Reid, to record their voices for the score.

What was the most challenging part of the process for you?

One of the things that we found early on was we really wanted the musical numbers to be big, bold and enjoyable musical experiences. But at the same time, we wanted to ground them in a physical reality. The way to do this is to ground them in the performances, which we wanted to feel completely heartfelt, genuine and real. Of course, this is film, so obviously everything is made up. So during the mix, what we found we needed to do was find a layer of reality, depending on which track it was, where the audience felt that what they were seeing was indeed as real, and genuine and authentic as a live performance, yet there was enough room for the music and the vocals to really lead us through. We had to figure that out early on in the “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” number, where Elton, as a boy, starts singing and it goes through this street brawl into a fairground all in one shot. It’s a neat little narrative device. Then it comes back in and Taron leaps in and continues the song as our final Elton. It’s a complex musical moment but it’s also quite complex in the layers of reality and trying to find the connective tissue to make the audience feel like, “OK, this is all happening,” even though we all know it’s not. But you feel like it is, and gauging where that balancing point was with the tracks was a real process of trial and error. Each track had its own little balancing point and it was where a lot of the work was.

With so many finely tuned ears on set, including Elton John himself, I’ll bet that wasn’t an easy thing to pull off.

It wasn’t. That point where you feel connected to what’s happening on the screen and in your ears is quite subjective, and finding that consensus amongst all the filmmakers took quite a while. That was probably the most challenging part of it. But really, to me, the end result made it worthwhile because we kind of got everything: we got an unabashed fantasy but we’re totally along for the ride and believing in it and never really lose touch with the reality of it as Elton’s life. Dexter did say at one point — and I don’t want to blow my own trumpet — that it’s been one of the biggest lifts that sound has had on any movie he’s worked on. There is so much work that sound can do in a movie like this, that until every element was all there, that feeling that we believe in this fantasy playing out before us was only at about 75% from where it needed to be. Because the sound was doing so much work in this film it wasn’t until the various bits of the mix were there in place that it really came alive.

Can you talk about the pivotal scene in the Troubadour where time literally stops and John and the audience are levitating in a moment of ecstatic connection?

That’s an audacious moment there, isn’t it? That really did happen and wasn’t fantasy, by the way. The crowd did literally levitate and of course Elton has always been an incredibly acrobatic performer. Everyone was on a winch in that scene. I love the way that scene goes from this incredibly literal soundtrack of him in a club, where all the perspective is put in and all the PA sounds are manufactured to make us feel like we’re really there. And then suddenly the switch flips and we’re inside this beautiful fantasy moment where the score just leads us into this euphoric event. Then we flip the switch again and bam! We’re back down in the real world. I think it’s such a bold and brave and wonderful concept and it was really great to be part of that sort of filmmaking.

John’s first U.S. performance at L.A.’s Troubadour launched his career. In the film, it’s a seminal, almost spiritual moment for performer and audience, beautifully rendered by the edit and mix.

Were there any particular plug-ins in your usual toolkit that came in handy for this mix?

One of the biggest challenges with musicals like this that aren’t live and have multiple vocal sources is first, getting in and out of songs and second, matching all of those prerecorded and on-set bits to make them feel like one continuous, authentic performance. Beyond crafting those tracks with the conventional things like EQ, compression and all the reverbs and things, one of the things I found particularly useful was a Danish plug-in I used from Oeksound called Spiff. When you record on a vocal mic, often it’s a full-capture mic and you’re getting all those percussive consonants and things that are actually location recorded that you don’t need. You’ve got to tame all those transient bits. Spiff is an extremely fast transient tamer and can take all of those impacts, both low and high, out of those very close vocal mic recordings. It really helps get you in the ballpark of what a wider, boom-type mic might pick up. That helped me on many occasions. And then the craft is to shape those tracks to feel continuous using all the usual tricks of the trade, again EQ, compression and finding a reverb that can help connect everything. You’ve also got to play with perspective as much as possible, in terms of giving what is basically a vocal performance in a microphone but giving that shape to picture. The trick is to work the track around as perspectives shift as we come off what would potentially be a location mic and give it some movement. There’s always a lot of very fine, detailed work in that way to help sell those performances. It’s stuff no one ever notices when they watch a film but which take quite a long time to get right.

How much time did you have?

Not that long, really. Somehow we got backed into a deadline where Cannes was our big premiere and we got locked into a four-week mix from that. There are quite a few voices in this show, and to get that done in that amount of time, while also dealing with a cut that was slightly shifting (but not too badly) was a challenge, for sure. I only took one day off; it was quite tight. But, in a way, having those deadlines sometimes really helps focus you creatively. Sometimes if you limit yourself to eight tracks or three instruments or whatever, you can produce a really interesting piece of music because you aren’t distracted by all the other possibilities. You just get on and do it. Actually, having a schedule like that where there’s enough time to do it, but only just, you just get down to the big decisions and think instead let’s be bold and let’s be instinctive about things. It brings out a very creative part of you. It certainly does with me, so I really enjoyed having that limitation. It can really help distill your thoughts and choices. Sometimes when I’m doing a temp mix on something and you’ve got a few days and it can be a really complicated film that you’re working on, you go with your instincts. You might just mute the music to see what it feels like, or throw the dialogue into reverb, or you might just do something that you instinctively feel is the right thing at that point. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. When they do, those instinctive things tend to just define the vibe of what goes on from that point. They can also really help inform the film, and the edit, and all sorts of things beyond that. They can be extremely creative moments and for me that playing, if you like, is where a lot of the enjoyment is in my role.

Egerton as John and Jamie Bell as his long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin share a rare moment of tension over dinner.

How did Martin and his impressionist arrangement influence your choices? The soundtrack really seeps into your pores, very much the way Martin’s live Cirque du Soleil show The Beatles: Love did. And the use of the horns and that reverb chord from Sgt. Pepper’s “A Day in the Life” was a lovely nod to that, and to his father’s enduring legacy, too.

Of course! He’s magnificent. And he pays tribute to his father [Beatles producer George Martin] with all the other lovely string moments in the score. He and his team did an incredible job of not only just arranging and orchestrating and recording the music, but also big chunks of the mixing. I ended up with a lot of stems. They are all 5.1 stems, so we ended up making a naked Atmos mix, so a lot of those stems got dismantled and put into the Atmos, which is my role. A lot of the songs are grounded in a rock ’n’ roll vibe with bass, drums and guitars, so we tended to keep those pretty much as they were. But all the other lovely components that Giles put in, all the cinematic stuff, was what we had fun with, making it as immersive as possible, especially in some of the big numbers like “Rocketman” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” where we had lots of elements to play with. Giles is very hands on with that in the mix stage with us. There was a lot of collaboration and we mixed entirely virtually, so we could always change it and we could always add and subtract as we were doing it. As I said, the edit evolved a little bit as we were doing it and verses went in and out. It was a very fluid thing and I think that really helps with the final creative product as well. When it is fluid and collaborative, I think you’re more able to put the logistics to one side and get on with it. Career-wise, there are highlights and this is very much one of them.

 

 

 

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Kerry Shea to Lead New Technicolor Pre-Production Studio in L.A.

Technicolor is creating a new Los Angeles studio dedicated to the pre-production pipeline, including concept art, previs, virtual production, and VFX prep.

The Technicolor Pre-Production Studio will be headed by Kerry Shea, most recently head of studio at Technicolor-owned MPC in L.A. Prior to joining MPC in May 2018, Shea had been head of studio at Method/Encore in Vancouver following a nearly five-year run at pre-vis pioneer The Third Floor.

The new studio will include five departments dedicated to different aspects of project development: business development, VFX supervisors, art, virtual production and visualization. The operation will use Technicolor’s proprietary Genesis software platform for tracking creative decisions from pre-production through shooting and post and into VFX.

“We believe in the value of being able to help influence story-driven decisions with creatives early on,” said Shea in a prepared statement. “We do this by providing a higher level of fidelity early in the production, whether it’s in the art department, or in visualization before you hit the stage, or even on the stage. By seeing more clearly what the creatives are trying to convey, better creative decisions can be made early on.”

Technicolor said the Pre-Production Studio is a standalone operation, though it can work in conjunction with one or more of Technicolor’s VFX operations, which include MPC, Mill Film, Mr. X and Technicolor VFX.

Technicolor: www.technicolor.com

 

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Periscope Post & Audio Opens Hollywood Operation

Chicago-based Periscope Post & Audio has opened a new post facility in Hollywood, devoting 22,000 square feet to sound and picture finishing for independent features, broadcast and streaming content.

Ben Benedetti, a veteran of Ascent Media and Sony Pictures Entertainment, will be GM of the new site.

The operation at 6860 Lexington Ave. will handle dailies, editorial, color, and sound editing and mixing. One theatrical mix stage and three home theater stages are all Dolby Atmos-capable, and the firm is seeking Dolby Vision certification for two of five color finishing suites. The tech installation includes Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve, Avid Media Composer and Adobe Premiere Pro for color grading and editing, and Avid Pro Tools and S6 digital consoles for mixing.

An ADR stage and office space are available for rent, Periscope said.

“We want to build on relationships we’ve forged with producers in Chicago and extend our reach further into the television and feature markets,” said Periscope co-owner Michael Nehs in a prepared statement. “We have been looking for the right property for several years, one that is convenient to studios and production companies and big enough to support full-service solutions. We also wanted a space that would allow us to build large mix stages, which we believe are badly needed. This space offers all that and room to grow.”

Periscope Post & Audio: periscopepa.com

 

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Q&A: Colorist Society International President Kevin Shaw on AI, HDR, Color Science and Cinematography

It was a long time coming, but colorists finally got their own professional society in 2016, with the founding of the Colorist Society International. The CSI calls itself an “educational and cultural resource” for the industry, and invites professional colorists, DITs, telecine operators, restoration artists and color scientists to join. Launched at NAB 2016, the organization had more than 100 members after four months and now counts 197 regular members on its roster along with four CSI fellows — Dale Grahn, Lou Levinson, Charles Poynton and CSI President Kevin Shaw. We asked Shaw about the role of the colorist, the organization’s mission, and the future of the profession.

Q: How do you define the role of a colorist? Is it a creative position, a technical position, or a hybrid?

A: Definitely hybrid. Of course there is a very technical aspect. The colorist must understand camera capture, color science, delivery specs and so on, but those are just the foundations needed to do the job. Colorist Society International focuses on the creative contribution, which takes many forms. Sometimes it is the whole look of the project and is planned with the cinematographer and director. Other times, it involves polishing the raw material as part of the finishing process. CSI members have begun a description of colorist responsibilities.

Q: What kind of advocacy does the CSI engage in on behalf of the colorist community?

A: CSI was set up to represent colorists to awards bodies, trade shows and other professional organisations. To date, that has included discussions with Academy ACES, BAFTA, [and] several unions and trade bodies. We are in discussions with IMDb, for example, to create a color department for IMDb credits. Currently, colorists are spread between editorial, special effects and sometimes even camera departments. At NAB 2019, we were able to work with the NAB to host a colorist birds-of-a-feather meeting. That would never have happened were there not an organisation representing colorists. There have been unexpected examples too. We have often been used as a reference for working visa applications to various countries. Of course, just being able to identify professional, full-time colorists from everyone else is an important representation in its own right.

Q: Cinematographers and colorists have an almost symbiotic relationship. What can be done to make the relationship more efficient and effective?

A: Any direct communication between cinematographers and colorists can save an enormous amount of time and money, and result in better quality images. CSI is actively encouraging color-managed workflows from on-set to finishing. But often the short answer to the question is “involve the colorist much earlier.”

Q: HDR is a serious advance in color science. What are the biggest issues facing working colorists just starting to take on jobs that include HDR deliverables?

A: HDR is more than just an advance in color science. It is the biggest change to image aesthetics I can think of. The nearest example is the change from black-and-white to color. It is that different. So the biggest issue is getting that across — helping people to understand this is not just a matter of delivering more pixels, or a different color space. For the colorist, there are several important issues. First, the technical guidelines we have used for television and theatrical projects up to now no longer apply. Second, it’s not enough to simply convert from SDR to HDR or vice versa. The image has to be interpreted to remain conceptually valid while retaining the artistic intent between the two versions. Third, consumer televisions are a long way from our very expensive reference monitors, and our current consumer monitors are likely to look quite lame in only a few years. We have to be aware of the limitations of the pipeline all the way to the viewer. All these things need time and experience to learn, yet we are usually asked to deliver HDR without much appreciation for the extra creative work that needs to be done.

Q: How comfortable are directors and DPs with HDR, and do you have any advice for creatives who want to acquire footage that will look great in both SDR and HDR?

A: I think DPs, especially, are uncomfortable with HDR. Like colorists, the rule book was torn up and experience upset, and it’s going to take time to come to grips with the full impact. Directors should be very excited about HDR and the new colors, styles and visual tricks they can play with, but I think very few have really seen what HDR is capable of. Even if they have, getting funding for something that will work only in HDR is still a way off. The audience size is not big enough to justify it yet. I do believe in time HDR will be normal and watching SDR will be as odd as watching SDTV.

My advice for creating footage that looks great in HDR and SDR is to plan, shoot and finish the HDR first. It is common practice today to start with SDR in mind but that often restrains the HDR potential. Another thing to remember is that any form of clipping shows the limits of HDR. Ironically, shooting very high dynamic range subjects like fireworks, neon lights and high contrast lighting is hard to manage. It is better to shoot a dynamic range that is easily handled by the camera. The results will be more realistic content captured in a manner that stresses the camera and display capabilities.

Q: Can you highlight any misperceptions people in the industry may still have about the process of color-grading?

A: I would rather focus on the actual responsibilities of the colorist than what people think they do. But to answer the question, people still believe that the color grade is something that must happen after the edit and after picture-lock. They believe that the purpose of the color grade is only to match everything nicely. They may think that it doesn’t matter how the source media is delivered to the grade. In fact, the color grade process should start before or during shooting. There is no such thing as “neutral” in grading. We need those large raw camera files to do the best work. That’s just a start. The role of the colorist is still very misunderstood. CSI was created to address that.

Q: We’re starting to see the application of AI/machine learning technology to color-grading tools, such as the ability to quickly match tones across different shots. What kind of technological advances are coming next to color science, and do you have a wish list of tools and features you’d like to see vendors bring to market?

A: AI is very much in its infancy. Auto-color-correct has been an idea ever since I started in the industry decades ago. The fact that we are still waiting for it to happen proves that even matching needs a human eye. I am not saying that machine learning has no place. I welcome it, but color-grading is about creative decisions. Moving between color spaces is the province of color science.

With the rise of HDR and multiple deliverables, colorists are going to use a lot more color science, color management and tone mapping in the future. Tone mapping will be the next LUT fix-it tool. The biggest change I expect in the short term will result from new display technologies in the home and in the theater.

I do have a long wish list of features, mostly quite esoteric. However, colorists have always had to adapt existing tools to work in new ways. We need specialist tools to work in scene-referred workflows such as Academy ACES, and we need specialist HDR tools to deal with the tonal values above diffuse white. Further out, I would love to have a way to get a depth map from a (2D) image. Beyond that, I would like a control surface that is less about menu after menu of buttons, knobs and balls and more about touching the image …

Colorist Society International: coloristsociety.com

 

 

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From YouTube channel DoodleChaos, specializing in “synchronizing things to music and crazy contraptions,” comes this satisfying assorment of Rube Goldbergian constructions designed to drop a tiny orange ball into a tiny basketball hoop. Swish!

 

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Coca-Cola First Love (Hawkins, Indiana)

Coca-Cola jumps into the upside-down with this ad that doubles as a heavily branded promo for the upcoming, summertime-themed third season of Stranger Things, set to drop on Netflix July 4. The folks at Coke are so excited about the tie-in that they set up an online storefront to peddle limited-edition Stranger Things-branded bottles of 1985’s widely derided New Coke formula.

 

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Dody Dorn, ACE, Joins AMPAS Board of Directors After Runoff Election

Film editor Dody Dorn, ACE, is the latest electee to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) Board of Governors, having earned her seat in a run-off election held this week.

An earlier vote had resulted in a tie between Dorn and Mark Goldblatt, ACE. It was only the fifth time in the history of AMPAS that a tie had occurred in balloting for the Board of Governors.

It is still a commonly accepted notion that the editor just “cuts out all the bad bits.” I liken editing more to sculpture. I don’t claim to be Michelangelo, but I like to think that, when I am watching the dailies projected for the first time, I am seeing the pure essence of the film and that I work toward preserving and presenting that essence in a form that is accessible while still being artful. — Dody Dorn, July 2004

Each of the Academy’s 17 branches is represented by three governors who may serve up to three consecutive terms of three years apiece. The Board of Governors is charged with setting the organization’s strategic vision, preserving its financial health, and assuring the fulfillment of its mission.

AMPAS: www.oscars.org

 

 

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Good Omens DP Gavin Finney on Earthly and Otherwordly In-Camera Delights

A book-loving angel, a hip rocker demon, a young witch, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are all trying to find the 11-year-old Antichrist and his hellhound before the world as we know it ends. Throw in a book of 400-year-old prophecies, deep dives through history, some witchfinders and chatty Satanic nuns, a Kraken, an enterprising landlady and the petty bureaucracies of Heaven and Hell, Inc., and you get the deliciously rich and satiric universe that Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett first created on paper — famously collaborating with one another over a fax machine — in their 1990 book Good Omens. With an adapted screenplay by Gaiman, who is also the showrunner (Pratchett died in 2015), the new Amazon limited series based on the book stars Michael Sheen, David Tennant and Jon Hamm and was shot on location and on set in London, Buckinghamshire and South Africa.

Director Douglas Mackinnon and his cinematographer Gavin Finney were, like Gaiman and Pratchett, another match made in heaven. The pair went to film school together and later worked together on two films. Finney also had several other bonafides for this project in his pocket, having already shot three adaptations of Pratchett’s novels for television. For Good Omens he used the Arri Alexa SXT and Alexa Mini, Leica Summilux primes and Arri Alura zooms (15.5–45mm and 45–250mm) and output UHD 4K files.

We talked to Finney about the lighting, lenses, filters and techniques he used to delineate the show’s many moving parts and how he resurrected and modified his beloved Arriflex D-21, the precursor to the Alexa, to shoot a key set piece the old-fashioned way.

StudioDaily: Had you read the book and were you already a fan?

Gavin Finney: I didn’t read it when it first came out but eventually came to it about 10 years later. People kept mentioning Pratchett, and later, Gaiman, and telling me I really had to read these guys. Around the mid-2000s I became involved in the first of three adaptations of Terry Pratchett books. I was also aware of Gaiman’s Stardust and later Coraline adaptations. That’s when I picked up the book. I loved it instantly. So when I heard about the Good Omens adaptation I thought, “What a fantastic project, if they get it right. Then I heard that Douglas was directing it, which was a perfect choice. We’d been to film school at roughly the same time and had worked together before on two films. He and I had been trying to work on a number of projects ever since but our schedules never aligned. So naturally, I put my hat in the ring and ended up getting the job. The writing and the storyline is right up my street, and hearing that Neil Gaiman was writing the screenplay and showrunning meant this project would be looked after and taken seriously. Another big plus for me was that Douglas was going to direct all six episodes. Everyone prefers that and it’s really important to the creative process. For me, it’s much more satisfying to do all of a project with one director than to have to swap directors in and out from episode to episode. The actors also prefer working with one person all the way through when given the chance.

The show, like the book before it, brilliantly satirizes so many sacred cows. But at its heart, the series is all about one long and beautiful friendship.

That’s was the key to the whole thing, really. It’s a 6,000-year buddy movie. Sheen and Tennant absolutely nailed it with their performances. Sure, it’s also about the end of the world, and good and evil, and the choices we make, and free will. There’s a lot crammed in there with the multiple storylines and characters, so the dividends only increase on repeat views. But that friendship is the spine of this story on screen. Ultimately everyone was on the same page from the start: deliver a great show that was both true to the book but was also more than the book. The 28-minute cold open in episode 3 that moves through no less than 12 time periods, the expanded role of Gabriel, played by Jon Hamm, and pulling out and centering in on the Aziraphale and Crowley friendship are Gaiman’s wonderful additions to the expanded cinema version of the story. Agnes Nutter is, of course, pure Pratchett, but ultimately it was up to Neil and Douglas to stay true to the book while creating something new, which I think they did.

Jon Hamm plays the archangel Gabriel in a role expanded by Gaiman for the show.
Chris Raphael/Netflix

Were you involved in the pre-production planning process?

The prep process was actually very short and I came into it quite late. The time between me being offered the job and flying to South Africa to begin scouting locations was about 12 hours. I was literally packing my back on the evening I got the job. There were a lot of discussions in airport lounges with Douglas and Michael Ralph, the production designer, and also on location. That was my immersion to get up to speed.

How did you work with Mackinnon but also with Gaiman on set?

I worked directly with Douglas in terms of delivering his vision but Douglas and Neil had a very good working relationship and Neil was there all the time on set. He was also there in post all the way through the grade, which is very unusual. Neil’s input was always available at any time, but he’s such a clever guy, he understood on set that you let heads of departments do their thing. He would just nudge Douglas if he thought something had to go in a particular way. Certainly he had ideas about the look from the book during certain sequences during the grade. For example, in episode 6, where the sky goes red and everything has a kind of crimson hue to it, that was Neil’s influence during post. Some things he’d wanted inevitably had to be cut for pacing and time, since being presented with six hours of continuous drama is very different than being able to read a book at your own pace.

It’s still a rather large cast of characters and locales that made it into the show. How did you use lighting and lens effects to differentiate between the various opposing and ultimately converging sets of characters, starting with the two leads?

We used different looks and but also different camera filters for different periods and characters. On set, we graded the dailies using DaVinci Resolve and our DIT, Rich Simpson [of Hijack Post], transcoded them to go into the edit suite. The looks were designed and applied for each period of time seen in the show, whether 2011 or 2018 or the 1940s or the Victorian era and before. That way, in the edit, it had kind of a first-pass grade almost. That was continued during the online where we built looks for each section, so every section of the show had a signature. In terms of what we did in camera, Douglas wanted Aziraphale and Crowley to always be shot in a kind of heroic stance and lifted above everyone else around them, so we shot them from lower angles. They are immortal beings, after all, so that was the approach right from the start. Even as they walk through the world, they need to look like they are above it, that they are moving through it but really are not of it. Costume, hair and makeup made them fit into their human surroundings, though they are slightly odd and different. But nobody ever notices, just like nobody ever notices that Adam is the Antichrist because he has a force field around him that protects him. I also always front-lit Aziraphale’s face but back-lit his hair, so he’s always got a bit of a halo. Crowley’s a rock star god, really, so his lighting is always really contrasty and shadowy and his face is cast in shadow a bit more than Aziraphale’s. But I also had specific filter packs used for scenes in which only Aziraphale and Crowley are on screen, and those used for the kids, otherwise known as “Them,” and also for everyone else. Every camera was also constantly moving, whether on the ground or flying. We had a lot of Technocrane throughout the show and two Steadicam rigs at all times, and very often we’re coming into scenes from above because you have this God narrator and it’s celestial, and we’re looking down at earth. There are a lot of top shots. Even when we flash back to Agnes Nutter, we’re looking right down over the top of them. We carried that looking-down-and-flying feel throughout the six episodes.

Did you use drones?

Yup, we used anything that moved the camera. Every day, we had enough kit to go from dolly and track to Technochrane to Steadicam and back, and we did, pretty much every day. But it was always driven by the energy of the story and it was never gratuitous, as sometimes cranes can be. But in this sense it was the style. There would never be any static establishing shot; it would already be on the move, then we’d come in halfway through a move, and we’re above something, because narratively we are above something.

I understand you used an Arriflex D-21 for one scene. But it’s not any old D-21. Can you explain?

It’s the only one like it in the world and it was rebuilt for the show, specifically for a flashback scene in which Aziraphale is dancing the gavotte in a gentlemen’s club. Neil and Douglas wanted an old-filmy look. The traditional way to do that would have been to shoot it with the Alexa, then bang it out with a film scratch or grain plug-in in post. But we felt that doing it that way never looks quite right because the source footage is rock-solid. It always just looks a bit fake to me, honestly. But by adding a hand crank and LensBaby, which vignettes a lot, to the D-21 I could do it in camera. I kept it very loose, too, so as you’re cranking the camera with one hand and holding and focusing the lens, which is really meant for SLR stills cameras, it’s actually joggling. That joggle that wobbles the lens makes the image look like film weave. In old film cameras, the film wasn’t locked properly and it would move around in the gate. If you look at old Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd films, you can see the film moving.

For a flashback scene in the show cinematographer Gavin Finney, center, uses an an Arri 435 Hand Crank HC-1 attached to his modified Arriflex D-21 with a Lensbaby SLR lens to simulate in camera the jerky organic feel of silent film.

The D-21 was originally built for me at my request in 2008 or 2009, I think, for a particular show I wanted to do. I was the first person in Europe to use its predecessor, the D-20, when it came out, and both are the precursors to the Alexa. So I had that kind of relationship with Arri in London, and they very kindly rebuilt it so we could try to achieve in camera what Neil and Douglas wanted. I think they stripped out the remaining four D-21s they had on the shelf. The D-20 and D-21 both had optical viewfinders, like a film camera, and unlike an Alexa or other modern digital cinema cameras, which have an electronic monitor. You’re looking through the lens via a mirror shutter that rotates. And because of this, Bill Lovell at Arri at the time, and Andrew Prior, who came in after him, remembered that they had a hand-crank adapter wheel for a film camera called a 435. If you crank it slowly, everyone speeds up, and if you crank it fast, everyone slows down. But the hand crank had another benefit for our purposes: the exposure flutters, and goes lighter and darker as you crank. You can see all of those lovely details in that scene, and they are organic and in-camera and very difficult to do in post. I think it’s another good example of the kind of backup that Neil and Douglas and Amazon gave the show. Essentially, they said, go as mad as you like. If you’ve got an idea, do it. So to build a camera, the only one of its kind, ship it halfway round the world to Cape Town, South Africa, for a single scene, just doesn’t happen very often. We laughed during every single take of that scene because what Michael Sheen was doing with the dance was so glorious.

What was the filming schedule like between the various locations?

We had to fly to South Africa first because there were a lot of builds that had to happen there, including the Garden of Eden, while we were filming in the UK. We had to get ahead so that when we returned to South Africa in January 2018, everything was already up and running. We started filming in West London Studios around the village of Hambleden, which really is an absolutely beautiful place. I know that area very well and go walking there quite often. I had actually been there a year prior to that and thought, “What a quintessentially perfect English village. I really should film here.” It was so great to go back and shoot there.

The look of those scenes in the village are highly saturated, warm and pretty idyllic, almost unreal. Even though he’s the Antichrist, I guess Adam is living in his own Garden of Eden on earth.

That’s exactly right. It’s meant to be unrealistically perfect because Adam Young is there. Newt Pulsifer, the young witchfinder, realizes when he’s reading the newspaper cuttings that the weather there has been perfect for 11 years: It’s always sunny in August, the autumns are crisp, it snows at Christmas, etc. That’s the anomaly. The colors were hyped up to be a bit Edenish and supernaturally perfect because that’s where Adam’s growing up; he makes it perfect. But in order for that to work, you have to start with the perfect little village with the perfect little houses and then you pump that up with design and the way we shot it. For example, it had to always be sunny, which it rarely is. That was challenging.

Was the forest real, too?

Mostly, although all those wild tree roots were mainly constructed by Michael Ralph. But it was harder to shoot in there because the real weather wasn’t nearly as perfect, and we were putting a lot of light in the woods to create those idyllic beams of sunlight streaming through the leaves and branches and make it always glorious. But that golden and lush and sunny look slowly starts to change episode by episode as Adam comes into his powers, and it gets darker and colder and heavier and more stormy. And in episode 6 the look is quite red because of the ring of fire around London, and it changes back again at the very end when Aziraphale and Crowley get back together. The trick is making all those looks not a mess when you have that many characters and that many time periods. There is a considered homogenous look across the show but there are a lot of different looks within that, so that when you go back to a place you’ve already been you know where you are. Neil very much wanted that scene in episode 3 with the Nazis in the 1940s to feel like a spy thriller from that era. So it was shot very deliberately with that low-angle wide thing with beams of light, candlelight and given that film noir treatment.

Aziraphale in Heaven.
Chris Raphael/Netflix

Tell me more about how you lit and shot Heaven and Hell.

Well, for starters, they are part of the same building. No not really, but the idea is that Hell is in the cold basement with crappy old fluorescent lights, leaky pipes and all the garbage and Heaven has the atrium-height double-high ceilings and penthouse views across the best architecture in the world. We found an amazing location for Heaven and frosted all the windows, which took a week. Then we lit it very high key and gave it a look in post. We lit them from the outside using 77 Arri SkyPanels linked to a dimmer, so we could control the light over the course of the day. Using wide angle lenses, like the Zeiss Rectilinear 8mm, made the space look even bigger. Hell was actually filmed in a slaughterhouse in South Africa, so it was already pretty hellish. But we took the walls down and put in all the crappy lighting and made it all not work very well.

How would you describe the balance between in-camera effects and visual effects in the show?

There’s a lot of in-camera work combined with a lot of visual effect work, and the trick is making it all seamless. Milk VFX, who did the effects, were on set every day, pretty much. Every day they brought in two balls, one reflective and the other gray, that show them the direction and quality of light. Then they brought in their [X-Rite] Macbeth ColorChecker to see what the color temperatures are. They also write down the lens, the focus, the distance, the aperture, the camera height, the inclination, and all that gets fed back into their computers to design the shots. We had a lot of pre-vis and Michael Ralph did a lot of set drawings, so we knew what direction they were going in and the information they needed. The Soho street, for example, was built on an airbase, but only to the first corner and only to ground level, so there were lots of CGI set extensions. I think Milk did around 650 effects shots, but there were nearly 1200 in the whole show.

The effects are wonderful, even if some of the things they are creating are rather unsophisticated and a little corny. What was the thinking there?

That’s deliberate. All the things that manifest, like the Kraken and the aliens and their flimsy-looking ship, are all coming out of the mind of an 11-year-old boy. There are a couple of shots of his bedroom and two or three times we deliberately pan across the shelves where all of his toys are. And if you look, every single thing that appears in the film is on those shelves. And they appear because Adam can make them appear. So that spaceship? It was designed by the director’s daughter, and it was made with a popsicle stick and some cardboard. A fully rendered Star Trek spaceship doesn’t land, because that’s not what Adam had in his head; it’s the spaceship he had made at school and stares at when he goes to sleep, and it also moves in a particular way. That’s the very British, Gaiman-Pratchett element to this — that it’s all a bit crappy and comes from the undeveloped mind of a boy living in Buckinghamshire. There are actually a number of other brilliant effects that no one has noticed because they didn’t realize they were effects.

Such as?

Well, a lot of cinematographers I know asked me exactly where in Soho we shot those scenes. They wondered how we’d gotten the street shut down! But very few people will be able to spot where the join between the set and the extension is. There’s also extensive cleanup throughout. We had to take out a lot of modern villages and telephone poles in the background in the South African-shot scenes. Also, the wings are CG. There’s a lot of beautiful work in there. But to your earlier question, the mix between camera and visual effects is not like anything else I’ve ever done. It became pretty clear when we started to talk about the look that we couldn’t reference anything else. We always say that, but this really isn’t like anything else. Neil’s notes about doing Noah’s Ark out in the desert sum it up very nicely: it had to look as though we had enough money to shoot everything but had, in the end, simply decided not to.

For more on Good Omens, listen to StudioDaily’s Podcasts from the Front Lines episode featuring director Douglas Mackinnon.

 

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Automotive stunt director Ben Conrad concludes Donut Media’s How to Stunt series in style by putting the vaunted 2019 Genesis G70 through a forward-entry 180. Is it branded content? Sure, but that’s not why you watch. You watch because host James Pumphrey breaks down the Hollywood-ready stunt step by step so you know exactly how not to do it the next time you find yourself on the streets of downtown L.A. The results, captured with a full complement of car-commercial gear, are pretty wild.

 

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NBCUniversal Acquires Cineo Lighting

Two years into a strategic partnership on LED lighting technology development between the two companies, Cineo Lighting has been acquired by NBCUniversal, the company said today.

Former Cineo CEO Rich Pierceall, now VP of LED operations for NBCUniversal, broke the news in an email to customers. He said the company’s product line-up and personnel would not be affected by the move, nor would customer service be interrupted.

“The Cineo brand, its products and staff all remain intact, and in fact we are now able to accelerate our efforts to provide even more tools and techniques to help production professional tell their stories,” Pierceall wrote. “You can expect the same great products and service from Cineo moving forward, enhanced with the support of NBCUniversal to better serve our valued customers in motion picture, television and broadcast production.”

Cineo Lighting: www.cineolighting.com

 

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