CHICAGO – On October 7th, Chicago-based writer/director Ned Crowley’s feature film Middle Man (www.middlemanmovie.com) debuts on Netflix. Four months ago, Crowley — who is the US chief creative officer for advertising agency Mcgarrybowen — took to the stage at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. There, his “A Bloody Mess” keynote drew thousands of attendees and online viewers from around the world to hear how the experiences gained through 25 years in advertising helped save his sanity and his film.
In reviewing the movie’s production credits, scores of advertising professionals stand out among its key ingredients. Along with Crowley and editor Chris Claeys of Cutters Studios (www.cuttersstudios.com) in Chicago, the industry players behind Middle Man also include talents from The Cutters Studios’ graphics and VFX division Flavor and its post-audio group Another Country, to name a few.
“Ned and I met in the late ’80s when I cut what was probably close to his first commercial as a creative at Leo Burnett,” recalls Claeys. “I’ve worked with him on many commercials where every frame is scrutinized for maximum message impact…and frankly, I was concerned that he might bring that kind of scrutiny to the many, many frames of a movie. I didn’t need to worry; he was delightful to work with — collaborative, decisive, and he kept the ball rolling in a fun way. I enjoyed the process and working with Ned so much that I would do it again…and that’s saying a lot.”
Putting Claeys’ comments in perspective, Crowley credits him as being there from the start, and the second leading investor of time into this project. Both men enjoy recounting how the film was assembled in its entirety before a single frame was exposed. This “animatic” version was created with the director’s hand-drawn storyboards and audio from an early table reading of the script with the film’s co-star, Jim O’Heir.
From there, as the footage rolled in from their 13 days of production — captured on California locations from LA to Palmdale via director of photography Dick Buckley and second unit director of photography Gary Palmer — Claeys already knew exactly where to add each new scene into their working narrative.
“I was surprised at the talent, skill and organization Ned brought to the project as a first-time director,” Claeys continues. “I had the coverage I needed from the angles and the performances. As an indie film, there was no overshooting.”
Working on the film’s desert locations, which spanned interiors and exteriors, and quite a bit of night shooting, cinematographer Buckley explains that the group’s strategy was to maximize everything they had to work with, and not try to do too much.
“When you have such a strong cast and script, it takes a lot of the pressure off of the DP,” says Buckley, who is also highly accomplished as a commercial director. Working with a Red Epic 4K digital cinema camera and Zeiss Super Speed MK II prime lenses, he shot the vast majority of the film hand-held, with the exception of a few crane and drone shots. This approach helped minimize set-up times, choreography and blocking, while also supporting the post workflow.
As the live-action footage arrived, Claeys’ approach to organizing it proved to be highly efficient. “Avid Media Composer makes it so easy to organize your footage in any way you prefer,” he explains. “Scenes, shots and sequences can be located in seconds.”
Over time, he cut together all the scenes into three acts, before spending several months with Crowley in 2015 to essentially lock the picture.
Given its 50 VFX shots, VFX supervisor Brian Higgins from Flavor chose Autodesk Flame Premium as the project’s VFX, grading and finishing platform.
“Flame was the job's hub, but we processed each of the VFX shots using a customized ‘.clip’ pipeline, allowing me to load the latest Flare work from our other artists into the cut by clicking a single popup menu,” he says. “The film had quite a bit of practical gore in it, which we pushed even further in Flame. For example, we digitally blew the top of a guy's skull off, hid squibs, and splattered gallons of blood on just about everything.”
With all of the visual content conformed and transcoded to log DPX for the VFX touches, composited scenes were presented to the director for approval. The next step was grading with Autodesk Lustre, which was critical for visual continuity and atmosphere. The process of creating a digital intermediate was completed in Flame, under the direct supervision of Crowley, Buckley and executive producers Roger Petrusson and Bill Fortney.
The film’s 5.1 surround sound design and final mix presented more challenges for Drew Weir of Another Country, where the work was divided between sound design, dialogue and sound effects/Foley. Since many scenes were recorded in noisy environments, dialogue cleanup was addressed using a combination of editing takes in Avid’s Pro Tools 12, ADR, wild lines, and restoration using Izotope RX.
“Sound design of the gun shots was a big concern, too,” Weir adds. “Since each weapon and setting was unique, we wanted the different sounds to have personality but also still feel reel. Gun sounds were collected, edited and designed from library elements along with other samples. We also sent a field recording engineer out into the desert to collect wind, sand, ambience, cars and more sound effects for the film in surround and other formats.”
In the Foley sessions, props, shoes and clothing were used to match the actors’ movements and ensure each scene feels complete. Weir mastered all of these elements in the final surround mix in Another Country’s Sound 4 Theater Room.
From the beginning, Crowley expressed humble objectives for this project: “We wanted to make something we were proud of, to make it into one festival, and to have a beer afterwards and feel like we accomplished something,” he recalls. Those milestones were all surpassed last June, when Middle Man was presented with the New American Cinema Grand Jury Award at the 42nd edition of the Seattle International Film Festival.”
Now, after successfully screening at festivals and in limited theatrical release across America, Crowley and his friends proudly stand behind Middle Man, as it crosses the threshold into 190 countries via Netflix.
“We are optimistic that it’s going to find its following among the 100 million members of Netflix in the days to come,” Crowley concludes. “Remember everyone, it’s only funny until someone gets hurt.”