Interview: John Ottman, Editor/Composer of “Jack the Giant Slayer”

Posted on February 27, 2013 at 8:00 am

John Ottman is not just editor of this week’s exciting fantasy, “Jack the Giant Slayer” — he also composed the score.  I had a lot of fun talking to this polymath about his work on the film.

When you think about doing a movie set in another period and especially a fantasy movie what kind of signals can you send with the soundtrack?

Well I think the obvious thing is to be intentionally medieval or have music in line with the time or period but I didn’t do that. I just wanted to try to make the score timeless in terms of just good old fashioned movie adventures as opposed to something that is categorized into a certain time or period, doing stuff that was too fairy tale-like or obvious. I try to do that with the music as much as I could. It’s sort of a fine line between pushing the popcorn buttons but trying to keep the bar a little higher as much as possible without sacrificing popcorn fun.

Like any good popcorn movie you have romance and adventure.  How do you begin to put that together in the soundtrack?

I just looked at my deadline and I panicked and something comes out of my head. But just frankly this was all about story and these are timeless themes in this movie. You have the princess that doesn’t want to be a princess. But she gets saved by a pauper and they fall in love. I mean it’s not something we haven’t seen before so the challenge was how to keep it fresh and basically take a time old story and make it interesting for people.

Well it is a time old story but as you said these are themes that are perennially appealing. What is it about the story that makes these themes so enduringly popular?

People still fall in love. So I guess a love story is something everyone can still relate to.  And I guess there’s also the fantasy on the boy’s part of being a hero. And so I think those things will be true forever.

And at what point do you start working on the music?  Had you seen any of the visuals and special effects?  Did you have a sense of what the world was going to look like?

I’m the editor so I know everything. By the time I started writing the score I had probably seen the film hundreds of times. I was the one storyboarding the sequences and these motion capture shots and nurturing every visual effect for a year and a half. So by the time I go to write the score I am well aware of what the visuals are and it’s difficult because I have very little time to actually write and give time to my other responsibilities on the film, managing the movie.

Wow. You really surprised me. I though the music would come before the editing.

If I weren’t the editor I would have been on a maybe like a month before the editor’s cut was put together to watch the film and write the score. You have to tailor the music exactly to the images on the screen.  They have to be in sync with what’s going on. You really can’t write anything ahead of time.

As you’re editing are you thinking about the music, the rhythms?

As I’m editing I’m just thinking, “I have to write all this music. I’m don’t know when I’m going to have the time.” From day one I’m tormented by the fact that I somehow have to write this score but I don’t know when I am actually going to have the time to do it. That’s what I’m thinking about. As I’m making the movie of course I’m thinking about the types of music that it’ll need but I don’t specifically write anything while I am cutting because it’s such a life encompassing job just to cut a movie together. I wish I could. I would have less to do later.

I’ll intentionally create like a pregnant area in the movie so I’ll know that’s it’s going to be a big score moment for the drama. What the score is going to be I have no idea. I know generally the kind of music it is going to be.

Tell me a little bit about some of the challenges of editing such a special effects intensive movie.

I don’t recommend it to anybody. Special effects are one thing. Motion capture is a whole ‘nother world. Because basically you are taking raw data that is not even on film or videotaped.  It is just basically computer data based upon the movements of the actors and you can make anything of it you want. So I would take that data and lens the shot which is what creating the shots.  It’s very complicated because from that point on I would create a shot and storyboard how the real people are going to be integrated within that shot. So then I would take the shot to set and then based upon the storyboard would dictate how much of a set they would have to build and then becomes the battle between the production designer and the visual effects team. Who’s going to help? How much stuff are they going to build? How much is going to be CGI? So it’s enough to make your head explode on a daily basis because it’s just a lot of creating something from nothing. So each one of those shots, I don’t know how many there are, over 1000, is its own separate project that you have to basically baby until it’s finished. All the way from the original lensing to creating the textures of the skin to the lighting and integrating it with the real actors.

So all the giants were motion capture?



Those are real people walking around in motion capture outfits. But again it’s just the general movements of the faces that are caught and the general movements of the bodies. We embellish if we have to. But the animators do it and they create all the skin textures, and the outfits, and the background and the whole bit. It’s just a massive project. Process I should say.

Disney set a very high bar for beanstalks with “Mickey and the Beanstalk” but I thought you really did an amazing job.

That’s a relief to hear because I was the number one cynic of the bean stalk.  I was the non-believer because I thought it looked like a chunk of plastic all the time. I was aghast. I never thought anybody would ever buy it and it seems that in the end it worked through creative lighting and so forth on the set and then the CGI people spent a lot of time on the animation and the coloring to try as best as possible to try to make it look real.

I understand that you started making movies when you were very young.  What were the movies that inspired you to want to make movies?

Well actually they weren’t movies; they were the original “Star Trek” series. It actually pretty much trained my brain how to score movies because they has to reuse a lot of their existing music.  It taught me how they would reuse thematic ideas and so forth. And they scored those episodes in a very classic way. That was a huge influence on me, that series and then when “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” came out, the movie version. And of course “Star Wars.” That was the catalyst that woke all of us up inside, especially the resurrection of the classic film score.


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Smile of the Week: Go El Paso Thunderbirds!

Posted on February 26, 2013 at 12:16 pm

This is a coach — and a team — who understand the score.  Many thanks to my friend Ann Horak for sharing this touching story.
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Smile of the Week Sports Stories About Kids

Offensive Reference to the Pope Added to “Last Exorcism” Movie Ads

Posted on February 26, 2013 at 11:45 am

“The Last Exorcism, Part 2” looks pretty bad.  It’s a “cold open” (not shown to critics in time for reviews), which is always a bad sign.  But its recent amendment to add a reference to appear to tie the resignation of the pope to its story of satanic possession is appallingly offensive.

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Interview: Eleanor Tomlinson, the Princess in “Jack the Giant Slayer”

Posted on February 26, 2013 at 8:00 am

Eleanor Tomlinson plays Princess Isabelle in “Jack the Giant Slayer.”  But she is not your grandfather’s fairy tale princess.  This one goes undercover to explore the world of her subjects, rebels against her father’s plans to marry her off to the odious Roderick (Stanley Tucci), and suits up in armor to fight the giants.  I spoke to her about doing her own stunts, acting in a lycra suit studded with ping pong-like balls for the CGI, and keeping the enduring appeal of fairy tales while making them new again.

Tell me about the costumes — they are gorgeous and must have been a lot of fun to wear.

I absolutely loved the costumes.  They were all amazing.  The costume designer, Joanna Johnston (“Lincoln,” “Love Actually”) was fantastic at creating that fairy tale aspect.  She and Bryan , worked very hard and the minute I put on the armor or the dress I felt like a princess.  It was fantastic.

Your character is not a typical fairy tale princess.

That’s what drew me to her in the first place.  She’s not a damsel in distress, waiting in the tower; she’s very independent and feisty.  She was born into the royal family.  She didn’t choose the life and all that comes with it.  So it was interesting creating that character and I worked very hard with Bryan because I didn’t want her to come across as spoiled.  She still has to be lovable and Jack has to fall in love with her.  Bryan was brilliant.  He was so helpful.  This is my first lead role in a big movie, my big break and he really took the time, working with me before we started filming to talk about exactly where we wanted the character to go.  So, for example, I looked to Sigourney Weaver for inspiration because she’s a very strong, powerful woman.  We decided to go down that route as opposed to making her the princess that everyone has seen before.  So that was cool.

What was it like to work knowing the computer images would be filled in later?

That was a huge challenge.  Bryan talked to the actors and showed us what he had lined up, how the scenes were going to play and how the giants were going to interact with us.  It was fantastic!  He’s a really lovely man.  We shot all of the motion capture stuff right at the beginning with Bill Nighy so that his performance was captured and put onto the giant.  We would all be dressed in these strange lycra suits with balls on them and then our physical performance would be transferred onto a computer screen so you could see how your character would respond.  Every movement was transferred so you were controlling this little figure.  And Nicholas and I were mainly looking at tennis balls on very large poles to show us where the CGI would be added later.  Bryan was very helpful in showing us what the giants would look like and where they were going.  What they did with the giants was incredible!  Nick and I both said it was beyond our imagination.  They are really amazing.

Were you climbing on something real for the beanstalk?

Yes, they built an enormous beanstalk!  We used some of it to train before shooting so we were in tip top physical condition so we could tackle any stunts our characters would face.  Both Nick and I were really passionate about doing our own stunts and we felt that was crucial for our characters.  We were on the beanstalk and they would turn on wind machines and rain machines and it was all very scary!  But the most amazing fun.  Being thrown around by the giant when he gets hold of me — that was quite painful, and that was the day my mum came to the set.  She was all, “What are you doing to my daughter!”  

You come from a family of actors.  What’s the best advice you got about acting?

“Keep your feet on the ground.”

That’s hard to do in a movie where you climb a five-mile beanstalk!

Exactly!  My family are very down to earth people.  Keeping your friends close and doing your best.  Having the confidence to speak up and be brave about getting your ideas out there.  Sometimes it’s nerve-wracking in a movie this big to say, “I kind of saw Isabelle as doing this” or “I saw so-and-so doing that.”  But it’s important that you do your job and are not shy about doing it.  It was fantastic working with people like Bill and Stanley and Ewan .  They were so helpful.  They were really lovely to me and took me under their wings.

Isabelle has to stand up to her father but she does it in a loving and respectful way.  Did you bring anything to that from your own experience?

Well, I’m not a princess in real life but I am pretty feisty!  There are definitely elements of my personality in Isabelle and it was fun merging the two together.  I think she feels very trapped by the lifestyle that she was born into.  Working with Ian McShane was fantastic.  He was very helpful.  It’s not every day that you go to work with Ian McShane playing your dad and Ewan McGregor playing your guardian!  It was pretty special.  And Stanley Tucci is so funny and so amazing to watch.  Everything he does with his character is just amazing.  He really pushes the limits and he is hilarious.  I absolutely love his performance.

What is it that makes fairy tales so enduringly meaningful over hundreds of years?

It’s a form of escapism.  Everybody loves to go back to the stories that were a huge part of their childhood.  But also it’s lovely to see a movie that the whole family can enjoy.  There’s something in “Jack the Giant Slayer” for everyone, romance for the teenagers, the giants for scaring.  It’s nice to have a family movie.  And with CGI they can tell the story in a way no one could before.  It’s fascinating to see what they do.  They make make it again in 20 years and it will be totally different!

What lesson do you want people to take from the movie?

The movie’s about achieving your dreams and not being afraid to stand up to people to are telling you what to do.  It’s about deciding who you are, doing the things you want to achieve, even if it is climbing a five mile high beanpole for an adventure.  Why not?

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Actors Interview

Interview: The Trouble With Flirting Author Claire LaZebnik

Posted on February 26, 2013 at 8:00 am

Claire LaZebnik’s latest YA novel, The Trouble with Flirting, published today, is the witty and insightful story of Franny Price, a talented teenager who gets a summer job working with her aunt, the costumer for a high school drama program putting on plays by Shakespeare.  I loved it!  LaZebnik was nice enough to answer my questions.

Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park inspired some elements of your story, including the name of the main character.  Your Franny Price is much more confident and outspoken than Austen’s Fanny Price.  What are their most important similarities and differences?

They’re both thoughtful, decent, intelligent young women who occasionally get overlooked because they’re not flashy or gorgeous—they’re the type that grows on you, rather than the type that hits you over the head from the beginning. So that’s how they’re similar.

But, like all of us, they’re products of the age they live in, which ultimately makes them more different than similar. Fanny lives in an era when a woman with no independent means either has to marry well or face a lifetime of poverty: she has no way to pull herself up except through marriage. Alone, she’s impoverished; married, she’s dependent on her husband’s goodwill. Franny, on the other hand, is a modern young woman, who’s dependent on no one but herself for her future success. She may have to work when others get to play, but that’s a cash issue, not a class issue and really just proves how self-sufficient she is. When she falls in love, it’s for fun, not to ensure her future.

One of the most important elements of Austen’s Mansfield Park is a theatrical production that ends very poorly.  What do you as an author think that giving the characters a theatrical setting allows you to explore?

Actually, I think the whole idea of any summer program–not just an acting one–is that you get to escape whoever you are at home and play at being whatever you want to be and of course acting does exactly the same thing. And the contrast between getting up on stage and acting–which is fun and glamorous–and sitting backstage sewing costumes–which is the opposite–really added to Franny’s outsider status. But she’s not self-pitying or angry and I think that reflects well on her character, especially since she proves she’s as good an actor as any of them when she’s given the chance.

Your characters are very witty and it was a nice change to read a book about teenagers where the main characters were not too shy or insecure to speak up.  What can readers learn from characters who have that kind of confidence and humor?

I think it’s incredibly important for boys and girls (and men and women) to feel comfortable talking to each other. Nothing makes me sadder than hearing people ask for advice on “how to talk to the opposite sex.” Really? Because in my experience, you open up your mouth and the words come out. The strongest relationships I know are the ones based on friendship, and friendship grows when you talk easily, openly, and with a shared sense of humor.

In addition to Mansfield Park, another classic literary work that inspires this book is Twelfth Night, the Shakespeare play that the characters perform.  Why did you choose that play and how does it relate to the themes of the book?  Is the duality and mirroring of Twelfth Night relevant to your story?

So I’m embarrassed to admit that I chose Twelfth Night largely because I knew the play pretty well and could write about it  easily, although you can definitely find a lot of parallels between it and the novel (for one thing, characters have a tendency to fall in love with the wrong people in both). But it’s actually Measure for Measure that I chose more deliberately for them to discuss because there’s so much in that play about how you shouldn’t trust someone just because he appears on the outside to be good. All of that really does tie into The Trouble with Flirting, since Franny makes the mistake of judging people on how they appear and not on what they actually do.

Why is it important that Franny comes from a family with much less money than the kids in the theater program have?  How does her unexpected opportunity to appear on stage affect the way the others see her?

In Austen’s Mansfield Park, Fanny can’t shake her outsider status no matter how long she lives with the Bertrams, because she’s dependent on their generosity and her father isn’t a gentleman. I decided that putting Franny to work during the summer when every other high schooler is just having fun would capture that “poor cousin on the outside looking in” feeling.

When she gets to join a cast, she can prove that she’s just as talented as everyone else, that she could have gotten into the program if she’d been able to afford it, and I think that’s important to her self-esteem. She stops being so much of an outsider at that point–but other obstacles crop up for her.

What is the hardest part of writing a book like this?  What is the most fun?

Hardest part is this: promoting the book. I’m a homebody. I like to sit in my house and write–it’s trying to get people to hear about my books that I find challenging.

The most fun is that moment before you start writing, when you’re thinking about the story and phrases start popping into your head and you see everything so clearly and it feels like it’s going to all come together perfectly–like you could just sit down and the book would flow from your fingertips in a few short hours. Of course, when you sit down to actually put it on paper, everything gets obscured and confusing again. But that moment is lovely.

What were some of the books you enjoyed most when you were Franny’s age?  What do your kids like to read?

YA books basically didn’t exist when I was a kid. There were children’s books and there were books for adults, and pretty early on I took a lot of pride in reading adult books. I wanted to read everything I’d ever heard of, so I read D.H.Lawrence in middle school and Virginia Woolf when I was fourteen. I absolutely loved Colette’s Claudine books, which no one reads anymore, and I reread Austen’s novels every chance I got. I really read anything I could get my hands on. (I wasn’t a very social kid, as you can tell–I was always reading.)

My 15-year-old daughter has no interest in reading adult books; she likes YA books, but nothing too heavy or too supernatural. She likes her novels light and romantic, which might explain why I write that kind of book. Anyway, it’s interesting to me that the “invention” of this whole YA genre may have made teenagers less interested in reading adult books. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing: a lot of my favorite novels from the last decade have technically been YA novels–I think some of the best writing of our times is being done in that genre.

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