Directing a VFX heavy film is fragmented business. Writing the scenes into the script is one thing, but really starting to develop the shots from scratch to screen is quite a task. Usually, as a director you develop the shots slowly. First part is usually the dialogue between the cinematographer and you: what kind of shots are needed to tell the story. Then, you start dividing those shots into elements that can be shot, or agree that it needs to be done full CG.
When shooting, you usually have either storyboard or sometimes an animated storyboard (we call them animatics or previsualizations) to give an example or a detailed account on how the shot would be, even if you only have a character sitting in a green room on a green chair talking with nothing but green walls – at least you know what camera angles you need to portray the story the way you as a director have in mind.
Editing you do your best with what you have. Usually at this stage, the VFX company hasn’t necessarily provided all the shots even in a crude format to really form an understandable edit, but as a director you anyhow know quite exactly what kind of shots you will need, and are able to discuss it with the editor. Sometimes, VFX company will drop you with some rough sketches, but sometimes it’s just a black screen describing the element.
It’s really the dialogue you have with the VFX supervisor which in the end turns into actual shots and detailed sequences, and it begins already on the set, and continues during the whole production. One of the key things after the shoot is done is the “spotting” phase, where you sit together with the VFX supervisor and some heads of department, and go through the film, shot by shot, describing in as much detail as possible what you need, want, wish or demand.
We started this process with our VFX team yesterday, with the latest cut in our hand and delivered to the VFX company, and then screened the whole thing – well, started the screening, that is – on the big screen, going indeed shot by shot, unloading my mind to them. I enjoy working with Chris our current supervisor, he’s a modest guy who knows he’s working with a top team but doesn’t make a scene out of it, he listens my ramblings and takes it all in, offers his own ideas quite amply but trusts very much on which way I want to steer the story. We have some pretty hard shots in the movie, partially also because we didn’t always have adequate green screen environments, so a lot of hand roto is required as well, but his attitude is good: “no problem”, and if there is a problem, he’s willing to find solutions to work it out. Only once or twice I came upon a situation where he says something would be extremely tricky to produce, and suggests we find another solution. And even then, there can be a way to make it happen.
This is I guess the key about many aspects of filmmaking – the attitude needs to be “if there is a will, there is a way”, instead of trying to either go around the easy route or just saying “nope, can’t be done”. You encounter that attitude unfortunately sometimes during the production or post production, and nothing angers me more. Almost every time there is a way, you just have to open the mind and be willing to find the solution. And if there is not a way, then you have to be creative to conceive the same thing. But sometimes you get this stonewall answer of “it’s impossible”, which I refuse to believe. I mean, we can make films nowadays of lizards flying in an alien planet full of four meter tall blue people in 3D, we probably can do almost anything a script can throw at you nowadays.
Of course, it’s the matter of resources, and that’s when things get interesting. There’s always time, and money, and quality, and usually you can only pick two. But even then, when you are out of some resources, you can find a way. It begins with the will to want to exceed yourself, and I guess that’s one of director’s main tasks: to create a movie, an environment where people working on it want to do just that, to exceed themselves.
It’s hard to do in any other medium of visual storytelling, but film has that quality on the people working on it: they want it to be more than the sum of its’ parts.
During the spotting, we got through half of the film, and will continue tomorrow. And after that, well, it’s my time to head back home for now, and jump back onboard Iron Sky The Coming Race, which we have to finish before the autumn!