Before the lush celebrity gift suites, the sold-out Q&A sessions, and the long lines of frozen but eager cinephiles trying to grab the hottest ticket in Park City, a movie was made -- and it was hard work. And behind the producers and directors and actors who led the charge, a "below-the-line" crew of anywhere from tens to hundreds of craftspeople worked to bring filmmakers' visions to life. They're the post production engineers, the editors, the camera operators, or the composers whose names are in the credits but not the numerous story pitches to Sundance press outlets like the COW. Union or non-union, aspiring or veteran, these individuals spent weeks of their life behind the scenes dedicated to telling a story. And in my 2018 COW Sundance Film Festival coverage, I'm telling their stories.
On the feature film Search which made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival this week
, editors Nick Johnson and Will Merrick were tasked with some hefty new challenges: a film shot almost entirely on GoPro (with a little dash of iPhone and MiniDV) requiring thousands of layers of continuously rasterizing vector files -- which takes place entirely on a screen. Oh, and also Sundance deadlines.
John Cho in Search. Courtesy Sundance Institute.
, directed by Aneesh Chaganty and co-written by Aneesh and producer Sev Ohanian, isn't the first "screen" film -- that is, the first film to take place entirely on a computer screen. But Sev explains it is the first to bring a cinematic approach to the limited "screen" genre. "At first we were kind of hesitant about taking on this project because there was a skepticism we had about not wanting to make a movie that would feel or look like a gimmick. What we think makes Search
a special movie, considering we have this crazy visual style on computer screens, is that we put the characters first. And even down to our opening sequence, which encapsulates 12 years of a family entirely from their home computer, the idea was to give audiences a cinematic, visceral experience no different than any kind of movie they'd see -- except that it happens on computer screens."
Nick and Will's job? Will says it was "to figure out the execution of that, to make a movie told through computer screens that feels cinematic and not just what you feel when you sit at your computer screen."
Nick added that "as far as we know, I think we're one of the first if not the first "screen" films to cut and punch in [to a shot] which seems like such an obvious idea. Because we were doing that, it created all sorts of really challenging technical situations. That said, we think it creates a uniquely cinematic experience you haven't seen in any other "screen" movie."
This cinematic experience is difficult to fully explain, but once you see it you get it: they cut a movie on a screen just like a movie shot any other way. Close-ups, medium shots, and transitions, the full gamut of traditional storytelling language -- all with shots happening on some kind of screen. This seems obvious in retrospect, but trying to wrap your head around how it would actually look was difficult, even for the film's performers.
During the Q&A session following the Sundance world premiere, actor Debra Messing discussed how it was difficult to understand the script at first, with it being full of stage directions for a mouse and when or where someone would click a button. But then she saw Chaganty's Seeds
and understood immediately that something new and special was taking place. This kind of movie needed the right team.
And the USC-driven team has reaped the rewards at the festival. Aside from the Sundance Audience Award for "Best of Next!" and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Feature Film Prize (awarded to a film featuring science or technology as a major theme), producer Ohanian picked up the Sundance Institute and Amazon Studios Narrative Feature Film Producer Award, honoring his role as a bold creative producer in an independent space. Oh, and the film has also landed one of the biggest deals at the festival: it sold for $5 million to Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions.
And the creative and technical processes were not without major challenges. From figuring out the visual language of the film to sorting out numerous render issues (and diving deep into tech support to help support their need to push the technical limits of Creative Cloud software), Nick and Will had their work cut out for them. And it was to be expected: Will, Nick, Sev and director Aneesh all met during their time in film school at USC in Los Angeles.
It was at USC that Aneesh established himself as an ambitious filmmaker, directing the wildly popular shot-entirely-on-Google-Glass tear-jerker Seeds
, which Sev produced. Sev produced numerous indies, including Fruitvale Station
. Sev and Aneesh became writing partners and tapped classmates Will and Nick, who had been working on music videos and features, to cut Search
. Sev added that "when the movie was coming together, we knew it was going to be a very different film experience than what we had ever done or most people had done. We knew we needed to put together the best team of editors. This movie could not have been possible had we not had these two guys who not only had to edit this movie, but learn and teach themselves how to do this while they were doing it under insane deadlines."
Creative COW: When you were working out the story in the writing process and pre-production, how much planning about the constraints of the screen medium did you put into post production? Did you plan it tightly, or leave room to figure it out in the edit?
We made the decision very early on to not make this film be an experiment. We wanted to avoid a situation where we would write and shoot the movie, and then figure it out in post. Our intention was that we would make a super-plan of what this film was going to look like before we ever shot anything. We wrote a really tight mystery thriller first. Seven weeks before we started principal photography with our actors John Cho and Debra Messing, we came up with this plan to start editing the movie first. So seven weeks before principal photography, Will and Nick were already editing an animatic of the movie.
The idea was that by the time we really started shooting the movie, we had screened that animatic version to our crew, and people had an idea of what we were trying to achieve. And most importantly, we could make sure the movie had artistic value. That was the idea of us planning and trying to avoid learning the movie in the edit -- so we could focus on the creative parts of the movie in post, not just the technical.
And the preparation even went earlier than seven weeks. When we first met with Aneesh, he described these meetings as "rehearsals with the editors". The script was already really incredible, and an unusual piece to read because of the format. Will and I went scene by scene with Aneesh just talking through mouse movements, how we would cover certain things, and what the acts were going to look like, so that by the time we started we could hit the ground running to make sure the animatic was done and ready to go before production started.
Aneesh, Will and Nick working together. Courtesy Sundance Institute
It's an interesting approach that you almost edited the movie backwards.
It was almost like making an animated film.
Was that difficult to wrap your minds around, editorially?
Something that was weird was as an editor was that you never really start with a blank slate. On the first day when we came in, we had an empty timeline and had to start screen capping software. Nothing that made the final film was screencapped -- we animated all that later. But for [the animatic] we just sat down and started capturing Facebook, FaceTime, and Aneesh started taking pictures of his face. It really felt like we built it up from nothing.
Coming into it there weren't that many movies we were trying to emulate. There wasn't an existing template for what we were trying to do. Even in the "rehearsals" we had with Aneesh, I remember trying to understand like, okay what's the language? What are the rules of editing this? If we're in a close-up, can we cut to another close-up? Is it going to be disorienting? Because you're editing on a three dimensional plane. And it's not as obvious as you'd think. I remember early on thinking there'd be certain rules we needed to put in place because the audience would be disoriented. We ended up finding out this wasn't necessarily true.
We broke pretty much every rule eventually.
Do you feel that people weren't as disoriented as you thought because they're so used to looking at screens and interacting with them?
I do think that's partly why. I also think it's because, at the end, we were just using traditional cinematic language. Audiences are used to those sorts of shots, that sort of editing. I think the thing we needed to get over was "so what, it takes place on a computer screen." We still had to treat it as a movie. We could have dissolves, we could cut from close-up to close-up. People are used to seeing that.
Nick and Will working together in Premiere Pro. Courtesy Sundance Institute.
Can you tell me about your technical workflow and how you worked together on that?
We began by creating the animatic, but because we made it all layer by layer in Premiere, when the live action came in we would sit in the office and edit it into the animatic. That became our first editor assembly. From there we worked in Adobe Premiere -- we would build everything in a wide shot and put that in a nest, and we'd put the temp camera moves outside the nest. It made timing very hard. Every time we changed timing we'd have to go into the nest and move everything, come out of the nest, change the camera moves.
We had a transcode process to ProRes [for the live action footage] and kept all that [instead of conforming to camera originals]. [Search
] was almost all shot on GoPros, so it's all H.264. We had an incredible assistant editor -- who posts a lot on Creative COW by the way, Angelo Lorenzo -- who did the transcoding.
After all that was done, which was tedious and painstaking, we picture locked and sent the entire movie to After Effects where we replaced almost everything in the film with Illustrator files we made partially working with a VFX company called Neon Robotic, so everything would be infinitely scalable and we could make our real camera moves and punch ins.
The big thing we quickly learned, and we knew to some degree going in, was that we weren't able to screen record anything because we would need 16K monitors in order to capture that stuff. So almost everything you see in the movie, with the exception of the live action, has been drawn in Illustrator and animated in After Effects. We had to recreate, line for line, Facebook, iMessage, Finder windows -- and every click state would have "states" for when the mouse would click. And then we motion captured the mouse in everything. Everything you see is animated in After Effects.
For color, we had all our live action footage within elements in the screen, sometimes more than one in a shot. And you can't color the screen itself because you'd mess up the white and black levels. We did color in After Effects, and we found this great colorist Zach Medow who does temp color on a lot of big movies. And because he does that, he knew how to work in After Effects, so he went in and used the Color Finesse Tool on all the live action element.
Which has to be one of the most tedious things a colorist could ever do.
He had no real time playback whatsoever. He had to watch a reference and go back to color. Once he was done with that, we made an export from After Effects and put that through Da Vinci Resolve to put some extra vignetting and blurring in, and a little bit of contrast on the final film itself.
We tried for a long time to figure out how to get just the live action footage into Resolve. The reason we didn't is because we had so many layers, and layers upon layers. And sometimes the Finder window would cross in front of a piece of live action, and sometimes it would go behind. There was no good way to isolate that and then slot it back in. The online process would have been really difficult. A lot of this movie and its technical processes, I remember thinking "there's gotta be a better way to do this." But we exhausted every possibility and eventually it was like I guess we'll do it this way.
Behind the scenes, John Cho in Search. Courtesy Sundance Institute.
How did the constraint of the "screen" play to your advantage as editors?
For one, the most obvious thing is that unlike a normal movie where you have to live with how the footage is, we could rearrange anything. It's an animated movie, so if a certain action is taking too long, we could just create a button on a page and have it happen instantly. Cutting a "screen" movie gives you the advantage of making changes.
It's a bit more first-person than a normal movie, which allows me to convey more things like the production design of the character's desktop through deeper character traits that are hard to convey through dialogue.
That was really fun too. There's a performance aspect to the mouse. You're constantly in the character's head. A lot of the mouse performances, you're performing as the main character. That was really fun, to almost be acting.
Because on the screen you can show the hesitation of the mouse, or something like that?
Exactly, that was one of the most fun parts of the movie for sure.
This film uses the technology inherent in our daily lives to tell a story. What does it say about the role technology has to play in our lives?
There's a lot of films or like Black Mirror
, warning us about technology and I think this film does that but it's also an affirmation about technology. Technology is good AND bad, it shows both sides.
In creating the movie, our intention was always to be as true to real life as possible. It was always the idea to be as true to our experience interacting n the internet as possible. Whether or not you read into the commentary, you think yeah this feels real and true to my experience. We were always careful to not be too heavy handed on any sort commentary.
You're featured in the "NEXT" section at Sundance, which is described as a set of films "distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to storytelling." Do you have thoughts about where else storytelling is going?
There are so many possibilities.
Virtual reality is really interesting.
VR is one of the most exciting things to me. I do think there are some really interesting things you can do with "screen reality" movies too.
I think the Lytro cameras will also change everything, at least about how movies are made. I think you'll start to see in the screen element, as the gimmick is worn out, there will be movies that incorporate screen scenes or moments, like how you see text bubbles popping up now. So if you have a live action movie and one scene is more conveniently told through a computer screen, maybe it'll just be told that way. Who knows where it'll go from there.