HOLLYWOOD — Brett Ratner was eight years old when a family friend gave him his first camera, a Super 8, “and that started me on my journey of becoming a director,” he recalls. At 16, he talked his way into NYU Film School, and at 27 he got his big break, directing his first movie Money Talks, with Chris Tucker. Ratner, now 37, hasn’t looked back since, and his films, such as X-Men: The Last Stand and The Family Man, have grossed over a billion dollars. But the director is perhaps best known for the hugely successful Rush Hour franchise, which teamed Tucker and Jackie Chan with a winning mix of comedy and action.
Now the team is back with Rush Hour 3, which this time lets the bumbling cops loose in Paris. Here, in an exclusive interview, Ratner talks about making the film and his love of post and visual effects.
POST: What were the biggest challenges of making the film?
BRETT RATNER: “We shot in Paris and LA, and it’s the hardest film I’ve ever done. I shot X-Men in 104 days. This was 112 days — just first unit. Then trying to make it bigger and funnier, and giving more of everything audiences loved in the first two.
“That meant me getting the biggest budget I could get to deliver a spectacle, and that in turn meant having to come up with a great set piece — we chose the Eiffel Tower because the third act always has to be in a big set piece. But when we got there, we realized that since it’s open seven days a week, from 9:30am to midnight, we could only do night shoots, and we ended up doing 10 all-night shoots. And we had a ton of big fights and stunts, and this film also ended up having a ton of visual effects shots — whereas Rush Hour 2 hardly had any.”
POST: The film has some great visual effects shots, especially in the big Paris sequences. How many total shots are there, and how did you go about dealing with them?
RATNER: “We had over 500 in the end, and ILM did nearly all of them [CSI Hollywood, Pixel Magic, Digital Dream, RotoFactory, Zoic, Entity FX and Luma Pictures also contributed shots]. We basically got them to recreate the Eiffel Tower. So we shot the scenes at the Tower, but then we also shot all these plates for the effects so we could expand whatever we needed to later, because there’s a huge fight sequence on the outside of the Tower and then they jump off the Tower.
“So then I got my visual effects supervisor John Bruno (Oscar-winner for The Abyss), who worked with me closely on X-Men, and he collaborated with this other visual effects supervisor, Adam Howard (Pirates of the Caribbean), on all the visual effects shots, many of which were very complex.
“We also built a whole section of the Tower on stage on the back lot at Warners, and everyone from the crew to the actors had to be rigged and wired. Then ILM extended it, and they did a brilliant job. So they had to reconstruct the Tower from scratch, section by section, for any possible angle that I wanted to shoot from. So any angle I put in the camera, you’d have seen Eiffel Tower for miles — for the sheer scope of it. The thing is, when we did pre-production, we realized that we couldn’t shoot the whole sequence at the physical Eiffel Tower itself, and each day in Paris was like a 400,000 Euro day, so it gets very expensive very quickly. So we decided to build a partial replica, and that’s when we went there and shot all the plates for ILM. In fact, the initial idea was to use a miniature, which is the old-fashioned way, but it takes so long to build it that we’d have never made the release schedule.
“There’s also a huge chase sequence in the back of a cab in Paris, which I didn’t finish because I just got stuck on how to end it. So I shot all these plates of the streets of Paris and then we figured it all out back in LA, so half of it was shot in Paris and half in LA. And you can’t tell! And ILM were sending us all the effects shots which we’d be cutting in right up to the last minute, and I lost a couple of shots which I felt we could do without. And then I think the overall look of the movie is the most important element we had to deal with, and I think it far surpasses the look of the first two films. And that’s due in large part to what we did in post.”
POST: Where did you do post?
RATNER: “We did it all on the lot at Warners, and then a key post element was Company 3 and Stefan Sonnenfeld, who’s my colorist and who does all my DIs. He’s done every single piece of film I’ve ever done in my entire career — every music video, every commercial, every film. He’s transferred it all. Back when I was living in New York I became a music video director, and someone told me about him — this is before he was even known. And even when I shot a job in New York, I always insisted on doing my post in LA, so that I could use him — that’s how big a deal it was to me. And I’ve helped him get into doing movies, so now he works with Ridley, Tony, Gore Verbinski, Michael Bay, Michael Mann — everyone. And I rely on him since he’s working off 2K files, so whenever I get a visual effects shot completed, I immediately send it to him — even before it’s cut into the film — and he puts it up on the screen and looks at a 2K file of it and says, ‘Brett, this needs to be crushed,’ or ‘the color’s off here’ or ‘look at the matte on this shot.’
“He’s really my eyes, and in my opinion, he’s more responsible for my success than anyone else I work with, since he gave me a look to my work that was so sophisticated, and people didn’t get it. They’d go, ‘How does Brett make his videos look like that?’ And it was all Stefan. He’s been my major collaborator for 20 years now.” [Sonnenfeld used da Vinci 2K on the film.]
POST: You used your longtime editor Mark Helfrich, the editor on all your previous films, as well as Don and Dean Zimmerman. How did that work?
RATNER: “It was because we had a big time crunch and Mark became a film director, so I hired Don and his son Dean to come in and cut during production. I had a lot of trust in Don — the man cut classics like Being There and Harold & Maude, as well as Night at the Museum. But Mark really knows the tone of the movie, which is crucial. And the edit is where you can make the same movie broader or with less comedy and so on. If you make it too broad and silly, then you don’t care about the characters and you don’t believe the villain, which is why I shot most of it as if it’s a thriller.
“When I began on post, Mark came in and all three worked together on Avids [PC-based Media Composer Adrenaline V.2.7 and one Symphony Nitris V.1.7, all connected to Unity shared-storage, were used on the film]. We spent months cutting, and I’m very involved — too involved [laughs]. We also worked with this visual effects editor JC [Joseph C. Bond, IV], because when you have so many visual effects shots it becomes a very difficult process. And having a good visual effects editor is key, especially when you’re sending shots to Company 3 to check. And like Stefan over there, Mark is a key collaborator. He helps me with the score and every aspect of post, because it’s all about taste, and after eight films together he knows what I want, so I can delegate a lot.
“When I did my first movie I had to do it all myself. Now I’ve found great collaborators and people with great ears, because I tend to get burned out in the mix, so Mark will sit through all the temp dubs and so on.”
POST: Do you like the post process?
RATNER: “For me, it’s the most important process of the whole production, since it’s the place where you decide how the film’s going to look and sound forever. So I do several negatives. Back in the day, I’d do one and they’d make a dupe and print off that IP, but you were really losing a generation. Now, since it’s digital, I create three or four negatives and print about 1,500 off each negative, so each print — even if you’re in the middle of nowhere — you’re going to see a pristine print off the original negative. And most studios say, ‘We don’t care about the quality because so many theatres have bad projection and sound systems.’ It’s important to me that everyone who sees it theatrically will see the same version.”
POST: Do you like working with visual effects?
RATNER: “I love it. I’d never done a lot before X-Men, and after doing 1,000 for that I feel I can do anything. Visual effects expanded my horizons and made me realize there’s nothing I can’t do now. If there’s a mismatch of an actor’s head, I do a visual effect. If there’s a light on in the background I don’t like, I’ll use a visual effect to turn it off. It’s so freeing, and it’d be an incredible lesson to show an audience what’s there before and then after. And a lot can be very subtle.”
POST: How important is music and audio for you?
RATNER: “So important. I obsessed over the mix on this, and every sound — from the loop group to the effects —is vital. I’ll get obsessed with gunshots, making them sound real. It’s hard to overstress, because bad sound can take you right out of a film, and it’s a very tricky balance between music, dialogue, effects, background noise and so on. It’s a very complicated juggling act.”
POST: I assume a digital intermediate carries equal importance?
RATNER: “Totally. It’s an amazing tool. I can change the color of someone’s shirt — it’s crazy what you can do now with Power Windows! The DI’s the most exciting part of the whole post process for me. I let the DP [J. Michael Muro] do his thing first then I go in and drive Stefan nuts! I think he’s like the Spielberg of color correction. He’s a true master, and very fast. But you always need a point of view doing a DI since there are so many options now.”
POST: What’s your view of digital cinema? Is film dead?
RATNER: “I’m a film lover, but my regular DP Dante Spinotti (The Insider, The Last of the Mohicans), who shot Red Dragon and The Family Man for me, is leaning toward HD, so I’m more open now.”