The Meg vs. Jaws: The Revenge

Posted on August 12, 2018 at 9:05 pm

Slate’s has a great essay by Keith Phipps comparing “The Meg” to the nutty “Jaws: The Revenge,” asking “Which is the crazier shark movie?” It is wonderfully passionate, thoughtful, and thorough and tons of fun to read.

Everything about Jaws: The Revenge, from its borderline incoherent story to its chaotic action to its iffy effects to co-star Mario Van Peebles’ attempt at a Bahamian accent reveal it as a patchwork movie with little holding it together.

And it gives me a chance to share my all-time favorite stand-up routine ever, from the late, much-missed Richard Jeni.

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Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Interview: Brigham Taylor, Producer of “Christopher Robin”

Posted on August 10, 2018 at 8:00 am

For The Credits I interviewed “Christopher Robin” producer Bringham Taylor, who talked to me about bringing together the old (Disney legends Jim Cummings returning to voice Pooh and Tigger and Richard Sherman writing new songs) and the new — a grown-up Christopher Robin, some new voice talent, to tell a story for all ages.

I think you have to respect not just the intelligence of the kids, but also the adults’ intelligence as you are approaching that material. It’s not easy. You need to try to have a multilayered kind of story that way. I think it’s one of the greater challenges. Having worked at Disney virtually my whole career, it’s always been a challenge. You don’t always nail it, but you always want to strive for something that feels universal, both at the idea and thematic level, but also in the visual. Something with enough visual sophistication and enough charm — visual sophistication for the adults in the audience, but also the appropriate amount of color and charm and whimsy for the younger kids.

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Interview: The Digital Effects Geniuses of Halon Entertainment on “Pacific Rim: Uprising” and More

Posted on August 8, 2018 at 8:00 am

Copyright Universal 2018
In big summer movie blockbusters, the actors are not the only stars. Equal billing should go to the visual effects brainiacs who make us believe in dinosaurs and skyscraper-sized robots called jaegers, aliens called Kaiju, and a prehistoric 75-foot long shark called a megalodon. At San Diego Comic-Con, I had a chance to talk to Peter Chiang (visual effects supervisor at DNEG) and Ryan McCoy (previs/postvis supervisor), and Brad Alexander (previs/postvis supervisor) of Halon Entertainment about their work on “Pacific Rim: Uprising” and a little bit about this week’s “The Meg.”

First of all, tell me the difference between what a previs and a postvis and visual effects supervision.

PETER CHIANG: I was on the production side so I supervise the film. I sit with Steven DeKnight and work out all the visual effects aspects of the film.

BRAD ALEXANDER: And so previs is where we come in at a very early stage and work with the director to translate the story in a very loose form using 3D animation and edit with as much constraint that we can put in as far as the lens used and how we’re actually going to get the shot.

RYAN MCCOY: After that, we take the film or movie so the principle photography happens. What we get back is a bunch of shots about a character reacting to a monster on a green screen but there’s no actual monster there.

They’re looking at a tennis ball, right?

RYAN MCCOY: Right, reacting to a tennis ball, so we have to make the tennis ball more frightening so that when you look at it in the context of the edit it makes sense and you get what is going on. That’s when postvis comes in. We’ve quickly put together a mock-up of what the final would be like and then the scene goes through iterations real fast without spending a whole lot of money so they can figure out if the scene works really quickly.

BRAD ALEXANDER: Postvis is almost a scaled down version of what a final visual effects shot is, probably it’s maybe 1/100th of the effort put in to convey what needs to be there.

PETER CHIANG: It’s a bit more than one percent. I think Brad is just being modest.

When the actors are looking at the tennis ball have they actually seen drawings of what it is they’re supposed to be looking at to help them create their performance?

BRAD ALEXANDER: Yes, on set we have the art department do amazing visuals to support that idea and we’ve already worked out really how high the robots are and so we’re counting floors on the building to talk to John Boyega and say “Hey, look, it’s going to be roughly about that high and he’s going to come at you from that way,” We do little tricks like we set up balloons and markers. We will put up two weather balloons and tell them to go A to B at a certain time. You’ll see him go like this and we go “No, no, no, no; he’s going to go like thiiisss” .

BRAD ALEXANDER: Or you fly a drone

I was very impressed with the believability of the weight and gravity that your Jaeger and Kaiju characters have and the physics of moving them around. What goes into making that work?

PETER CHIANG: We looked at a lot of things. We looked at lot of oil tankers and large objects moving. And so there was a tug of war constantly between physics and keeping the sequence alive and exciting. I think if we portrayed it in real physics people would have gone to sleep, because it would have taken a long time for that robot to walk down the street so there was a payoff. But even then we had to slow them down so on the set we would say to John and Cailee , “Hey look, you’re moving too quickly, you’ve got to feel like you’re lumbering a bit to slow him down”

BRAD ALEXANDER: At the very beginning when we were doing previs before we had the opportunity to work with Peter a lot of our shots and sequences to me personally just felt like they were moving so fast. It was frustrating. Coming from an animation background, you need to show weight. You need to show secondary motion. You want the plates to jiggle when you have a lot of mass. We kind of got cut off in the beginning phase of doing that and we had to send it off and let it go and then it’s kind of like I bowed my head and prayed to the Gods that someone would fix it. And then Peter came in and they actually fixed it so I think we found a middle ground that worked.

RYAN MCCOY: Yeah often in previs it’s hard because we have to cut down on all of the nuances of the animation and just the lightng and the contacts with the ground and a lot of those little things. That last five percent that polishes it off and makes the photo real is often what really gives it the weight that’s necessary. and so sometimes it can be challenging where it kind of looks okay in previs and then you do it in a final scene and when you see it, it’s like, “Oh well, that’s crazy.” So often what we have to do is put in a little extra work on some of those shots to really get it to sell, to start to understand how that weight would really work and how it would move and just the physics of it.

I was also impressed with the personalities of the different characters, particularly Scrapper who had a believably junkyard feel. I know some of that is from the sound guys but some of that is what you do.

BRAD ALEXANDER: The art department works very fast when they build their models and the model that they initially gave us looked like someone had taken a bunch of engine parts and panels from airplanes and whacked everything together. It wasn’t ribbed at all and I had to figure out — where are the joints going to go on this thing? Are there any gears that I can use as an elbow? Where are the hips going to be? I had to figure a lot of this kind of stuff out and then change some stuff around. Then I pass it off to the art department and say, “Can I move this? Is that okay?”

I think my favorite thing in this movie was that you got to play around with scale in such a dramatic way. We thought the last movie had very big creatures and big robots but now we’re in a whole other level. But you have to keep them all in the same shot, so how did you do that?

RYAN MCCOY: Wide lenses — put the camera really low with the wide lens and go back.

If I came over to your house is there anything I would see that would show that you worked on this project?

BRAD ALEXANDER: I got a Gypsy model from the first film and I had that on my desk the whole time. I have a little shelf in my house that has a little thing from a lot of the movies that I’ve worked on, my memento things.

Some people have pictures of their families…

BRAD ALEXANDER: I have robots.

RYAN MCCOY: Robot children.

PETER CHIANG: I love the toys. I’ve got all the toys; got the four main robots and Obsidian and Fury.

What are the qualities that make somebody very good at doing previs?

RYAN MCCOY: Being close to their inner child. Being able to embrace it while still being mature.

BRAD ALEXANDER: I think it’s generally a skill set. If you are as a 3D artist I think gives you the most to bring to the table as a previs artist because if you can rig a model, animate two effects, you could do everything and that opens you up to most work that we can give you.

RYAN MCCOY: Yeah for previs and postvis we really want filmmakers. We want people that understand storytelling not just people who know one skill particularly well. Alot of schools focus on just perfecting one specific craft and making a character feel very fluid in movement or whatever really is making one image look really beautiful and that’s all great — we need that too — but you can’t tell a story if you don’t know how you cut to one shot and all of a sudden it feels jarring and strange because you crossed the line or this is a weird framing of this creature or you don’t know what lenses are or how to use them effectively. There are so many tools.

BRAD ALEXANDER: Ultimately it’s film language and it all boils down to the composition, screen direction, and all of that kind of stuff.

What’s your next film coming out?

RYAN: He and I worked on “The Meg.” I have no idea if this is going to be good but it was a hell of a lot of fun to make. The whole end scene is what we worked on. And we did the whole ending of “Aquaman,” so that was quite a big endeavor.

Those scenes are underwater, which must be another challenge of physics calculations.

RYAN MCCOY: It was, I feel for Industrial Light and Magic, trying to make that come to life and I can’t wait to see what they do with it. it was a lot of fun to do previs for it because of the vastness of what was going to be told and it was just this big collaboration to try to get it into a really good shape so that it was really exciting. Yeah, the whole thing was fast and really fun.

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Interview: The Miseducation of Cameron Post’s Chloe Grace Moretz, Desiree Akhavan, and Mathew Shurka

Posted on August 7, 2018 at 3:42 pm

Copyright FilmRise 2018
Sundance winner “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” takes place in 1993, when a teenager is sent to a Christian “gay conversion” program something between boarding school, boot camp, rehab, and prison. Chloe Grace Moretz gives a performance of great subtlety and sensitivity in the title role. My friend and fellow critic Leslie Combemale and I spoke to Moretz, director Desiree Akhavan and gay conversion survivor and activist Mathew Shurka about the film.

I always think that one of the greatest challenges an actor can have is a part like this one where your character is so much an observer, with no big speeches.

Chloe Grace Moretz: What’s beautiful about the film is that it really is an ensemble piece. It’s called “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” but I walk through it with you guys, perceiving and understanding and taking in and comprehending this space that I’ve been thrust into. We shot the movie chronologically. We only had 23 days to shoot the movie. It was wonderful because we just walked through each beat. Because we didn’t have much rehearsal time, there wasn’t much to do other than feel and hear and listen and perceive.

Because my character didn’t have a lot of lines, all this stuff is happening to her and around her and she’s having all these projections put on her about of what she is and what her problems are. And all she says is, “I don’t think so.” It all happens in her head and it was really fun for me to play with that and depict it all through my face and my eyes. It’s what I like doing best as an actor, ever since I was a little girl. It’s always been something I enjoy, showing context and subtext in my head and having it pushed it out through my eyes, not having to vocalize it. A lot of times in life, when you’re faced with sadness and depression and anger you can’t really formulate words for that. When someone is looking at you and telling you everything you’re doing is incorrect, sometimes the best you can do is say, “I don’t think so.” You internalize that.

Desiree Akhavan: That was the character. Someone who wasn’t that talkative. An introverted, athletic lesbian, an ode to every woman I’ve ever loved. I was building a type. I’ve been asked if that was something that changed specifically through casting Chloe, because she has a strength for communicating without words, but it was just a happy marriage, when the character meets the right actor.

Copyright FilmRise 2018

Mathew Shurka: It was incredibly powerful to see that in Chloe. It is so hard to turn conversion therapy into a film. All the subtleties are really clear in the film. My favorite part is when she just walks into the conversion therapy center and Reverend Rick is playing the guitar. There’s a shot of Chloe’s face. There’s doubt, there’s fear, and “where am I” and it’s every teenager. As a survivor, it read really clear to me, what was going on with her character.

We’d like to believe we are wiser now than in 1993, when this movie takes place, but how many states still allow conversion therapy?

Mathew Shurka: Only 14 states have banned conversion therapy for minors, which means that some form of it is still permitted in 36. But it’s legal for adults in all 50 states. A majority of conversion therapy programs are religion-based, but not all. This movie shows both, an actual therapist and a pastor. In reality, that’s how it goes. All of my treatment was conducted by licensed professionals. My father, who was the one who was really adamant about me going into conversion therapy did his due diligence and he wanted someone who had gone through the training of a therapist to conduct this.

They’re fighting these bills so a lot more are getting licensed as therapists to have more credibility, because they are fighting these bills. There are licensed and there are unlicensed and then the overlap who are both, pastors and licensed therapists. We say you have to choose. In the states where we passed those bills, people say, “What if there’s a pastor who wants to conduct conversion therapy?” and we say, “You have to honor and obey the terms of your therapist license.” You have to choose. You want to be a pastor and have those rights, fine, but if you’re acting as a therapist you have to honor that license.

Because these issues are still so present, did you ever think of setting the film in the present instead of in 1993?

Desiree Akhavan: We thought about it because it would have been cheaper. But no, it was always really important that they were as isolated as possible. For the dramatic stakes to be as high as possible, Cameron could not even know about other gay kids, let along see them on Instagram or reach out and ask for help. I didn’t want there to be a world outside of what they knew around them. I wanted to be loyal to the book but I also didn’t want to deal with technology and the whole host of changes that would bring to their lifestyle and personalities and their identity and their self-expression. The way kids live right now is very different from the way they lived in 1993 and it was important to keep it that way. But it is a very relevant film and when I began this process I didn’t realize how relevant it would become through the course of production.

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Interview: Kelly MacDonald and Marc Turtletaub of “Puzzle”

Posted on August 7, 2018 at 8:00 am

Copyright 2018 Sony PIctures Classics

In the midst of the summer blockbuster season, a quiet film about a neglected wife who does jigsaw puzzles is getting a warm reception from critics and fans, with special praise for an exquisite performance by Kelly MacDonald as Agnes in her first lead role. I spoke to MacDonald and director Marc Turtletaub about the film.

There’s a timeless quality at the beginning of the movie as we see Agnes getting the house ready for a birthday party. We don’t know if it is set in the past or just today in a place that has not changed very much over the decades. It’s a surprise when one of her gifts is an iPhone because until that moment it could have been taking place in the 1950’s or 60’s.

Marc Turtletaub: Yes, it was intentional. You do it in the production design and the cinematography. Those early scenes are shot in silhouette and there is a lot of smoke being blown into the room by the cinematographer. It creates an atmosphere in which it feels almost like Agnes, the central character, is stuck in time, and she is as a character. She’s in the house she was raised in, in the house where she took care of her father, the one she raised her children in and so we wanted to create a sense in the environment that it was almost from another era.

It’s not only in the cinematography but it’s the production design and the costume. I spent way too much time picking out a dress for Agnes that would meld into the wallpaper we were picking out so you’d get the sense that not only was she stuck in time but that she was almost unseen in part of the environment.

Kelly MacDonald: There is a book, The Yellow Wallpaper, and that’s exactly what happens to her as she disappears into the walls.

MT: And in Garden State where it’s a complete match. We didn’t want to go that far. We did have a reference though, Bonnard. I was at a museum and I saw some of his work and I was so taken with how the study had a woman in front of the background and they melded so perfectly I went, “ That’s it, that’s what I’m looking for.”

Kelly, you had an unusual opportunity and challenge because you created the character without any words for the first part of the movie.

KM: I’ve always been interested in what it would be like to be in the silent era like Lillian Gish and just solely rely on expressions. So this was like my opportunity. I hadn’t realized when I read the script quite how much of the film has Agnes on her own. I just find those scenes were quite lonely because I got used to being around boys and family and everything and so there was a bit of that but I did quite enjoy just being able to express things without words. Quite often I’m trying to get rid of extraneous dialogue anyway. I’m happy without words.

Your character solves the puzzles very quickly. How did you make that look so natural?

KM: It brought back how much I like puzzles. So I was doing them when I would finish work for the day. I stole a couple from work and I would go back and decompress by doing puzzles. It’s very Zen and relaxing.

And I’d be presented with the prop of the day puzzle and then I would start to find a spot and take the best side that I wanted to work on and then place them on the table and try and remember where I put the pieces I’d be using. It was good brain training. And then I would start do it as fast as possible.

You were acting with one of my absolute favorites Irrfan Khan. Did you consult one another on the chemistry between your characters?

KM: I don’t think we really did discuss it. It was just suddenly he arrived as a fully fledged oddball. The first scene we filmed together was when I tell him I know he is an inventor. That was a good introductory scene to do actually because it was quite a long scene and we got to be face to face. I got to be awkward and he got to be just sort of bemused by this strange woman. When I think of him in the film I think of him in that doorway just being so physical and brilliant and just compelling I think.

There are a number of literal reflections in the film. What does that, well, reflect?

MT: I think of one that probably stands out most of all to me and it’s about it’s the moment where Irrfan Khan’s character Robert talks to Agnes about how active her mind is and the fact that she has nowhere to express it, no one to express it t. He sort of nails it and says something to her that no one has ever said to her but at the same token he actually listens to her. He can be a bit of a mansplainer but he also sees her in a way that maybe no one except her eldest son somewhat sees her.

There’s this wonderful moment after that where we hear Ave Maria and then she walks off and she goes down the street and we set it up so that as Kelly walks you see her reflection in the windows of the stores. And then she stops in front of one store and she flips her hair up and she puts it on top of her head and she pulls it behind her ear. As soon as I read it, that’s the visual I had in my mind. I wanted to see her looking at herself maybe for the first time in years as a woman and thinking about being more self-conscious.

We wanted to show different images (I call them portraits) of her at different stages of the movie and some were more successful than others; that was a successful one. I think another successful one is some of the reflections in the train and we just tried to capture Agnes at a different point in time to see how she’s evolved during the course of the movie.

Marc, You have an unusual career path for a director. What does being a CEO teach you that helps you as a director?

MT: I’ve had a strange life, not just career and I’ve had a lot of experience in a lot of different things. What I think I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is how to collaborate. People who are leaders in whatever endeavor and become successful over a long-term learn how to encourage other people. That’s something you do as a director. You encourage others, whether you’re a parent doing that and leading your children or whether you’re running a company, you’re encouraging. You hold a vision, you know how to set a boundary when you need to but there’s so much about encouraging people to do their best. And when you have people like Kelly and (I really say this in all candor) and Irrfan and David Denman and the young people we had, it makes the job really easy.

I love the way that recognizing her gift for puzzles inspires Agnes to notice more of what is going on around her. She even tells her husband she thinks they should begin watching the news. And she notices for the first time how unhappy her son is.

KM: It isn’t that film about a sort of savant which is great. She’s good at puzzles and she is fast but it’s not the through line of the film. What it does is remind her that she used to really quite like math. It just starts this little thing inside her brain, like this little scratch, and she wants to know what life might have been if things had been just even slightly different.

I just love that. The thing I love about her is she’s kind of got Truth Tourette’s — she just says what’s in her head. She does lie in the film but she does quite a bad job of it and struggles. But when she’s relaxed she can’t help but just see and some things that she says are totally brutal.

She’s a grown woman but she’s like a child. She is being kept like a sort of child-woman and it’s quite right that she has to at some point start discovering herself.

And her oldest son completely sees his mother and what she is and who she is in a way that Agnes isn’t even aware of. but he hasn’t spoken about it and it’s when she starts to sort of change slightly in these tiny ways to normal people but to her family it’s just seismic and it’s the tremors, the after-effects that touches them all. It’s really a beautiful thing that as she’s beginning to sort of open that door inside herself.

When you’re so trapped inside yourself it’s hard to see anyone else. If you do not see yourself with any depth how can you see depth in other people? This experience gives her the ability to just recognize her son’s in real trouble and she’s a very good mom and I think it’s lovely.

MT: She frees him.

KM: And it’s not a romance film either. It’s not about who is she going to end up with, who is going to make her better because it’s her journey. She could have fallen into either set of strong arms and the problems would remain and she would still have a lot of work to do on herself.

Marc, as I look back on the movies you have produced, it seems they are all about imperfect people trying to do the best they can.

MT: I try to. That’s like all of us, right? Audiences are hungry for real people realistically displayed. Mike Leigh said it beautifully: He takes the mundane and makes it poetic. That’s what we aspire for in this movie, to have ordinary characters but their lives stand for something so much bigger.

KM: Ordinary stories that move you, When people talk to us about how this movie makes them feel, they touch their hearts, literally put their hands on their chests, and I love that.

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