Iain Blair
Issue: April 1, 2008


HOLLYWOOD — Aussie filmmaker Roger Donaldson started out making TV commercials and documentaries back in the early ‘70s and directed his first feature, Sleeping Dogs, in 1977. Now, 30 years later, and with a successful Hollywood directing career under his belt (The Recruit, Thirteen Days, No Way Out), Donaldson has a new film to talk about called The Bank Job.

A highly charged heist thriller that tautly interweaves high-level corruption, murder and sexual scandal in 1970s London — and which is based on a true story, The Bank Job stars Jason Statham as the leader of a low-tech gang that digs and tunnels its way into a bank vault only to find they’ve bitten off far more than they can chew. The real robbery was one of the biggest ever at the time, allegedly netting in excess of $15 million in today’s dollars, and reportedly exposing lurid secrets about a member of the Royal Family.

Here, in an exclusive interview, Donaldson, whose other directing credits include The World’s Fastest Indian, The Bounty and Dante’s Peak, talks about making the film and his love of post and visual effects,

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make?
ROGER DONALDSON: “A very tense, amusing, fast-paced thriller.”

POST: Given it’s a period piece, what were the biggest challenges of making the film?
DONALDSON: “Recreating London of nearly 40 years ago is a huge challenge, from finding appropriate locations to dealing with the weather. We ended up having to shoot in winter, but that also gave it a great look. And thanks to what you can do in post with visual effects now, I was able to enhance the look a lot.

“Technically, the hardest scenes in The Bank Job were the exteriors of the bank, which were a mix of real and digital. Half the building was real, half digital, and the same for the cars. And you get this finesse and detail you could never get in the analog world. And then for the opening and last scenes, which are set in the Caribbean and Mediterranean respectively, I actually shot in Sardinia, and then shot some stuff in Australia. So it was quite an international production in the end.”

POST: It’s such a fascinating story, with all the angles about the Royal Family and blackmail photos allegedly found in the vault, and some of the official files on it are still classified. How much is true?
DONALDSON: “We’re not saying it’s a dramatized documentary, but it’s based on real events that supposedly all tie together, and we did a lot of research in archives and so on.”

POST: You used your Indian editor John Gilbert, who was Oscar-nominated for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. How does that relationship work?
DONALDSON: “He’s a really great editor and just gets better. We shot this on the Arri D20 digital cameras, which take film lenses, so the look you get is very similar to film. It has the same depth of field and so on, and the big plus is that you really see what you’ve got as you’re shooting.
“So we had digital files, which were input into the Avid. We did consider going to the Mac Final Cut Pro system, which potentially would have given us the ability to edit in a higher resolution, but John hadn’t used Final Cut. He was very familiar with Avid, and we were already down the Avid road, so it would have been a step backwards. We began cutting in London and then moved the whole post operation to Omnilab in Melbourne.”

POST: Why did you do post there?
DONALDSON: “My dad was very ill and I wanted to be close to him, but it also turned out to be a great choice. Omnilab has all these facilities under one umbrella, such as Iloura, which does fantastic visual effects work, and has CGI and animation departments. They’re very experienced and they’ve worked on films like The Lord of the Rings and Ghost Rider. And so we could also do the visual effects and digital grading there too, so it was very convenient. And they have some great people there.

“Our visual effects supervisor was Marc Van Buuren, and the guy who did the film-out used to work at Disney in LA and they were both so good. The other reason was that Omnilab actually co-funded the film, so that made sense too.”

POST: Do you like the post process?
DONALDSON: “I love it. It’s definitely a high point for me, but I like all the different stages of a film. I enjoy preproduction, finding locations and so on, and then shooting is always full of problems and stress, so it’s tough. Then when I get to post it’s like having this big jigsaw puzzle and you can sit down and finally enjoy making the film.

“I love the whole process of post and pulling together all the elements, including the visual effects and music and score, and you’re able to contemplate the whole film more. On this film, as it’s so complicated, John and I had a lot of fun putting all the pieces together.”

POST: How did shooting on the Arri HD system affect post?
DONALDSON: “Not that much. The big thing is you can feed the files directly into the computer without having to digitize. So it was all digital until the final film output. We actually graded [with Lustre] most of the time in 1K, and then we’d go to 2K if I was concerned about anything.
“And going all digital really helped me with the look of the film. For instance, it began raining half-way through a scene one day, and I was able to keep shooting and then in post digitally remove the rain where it showed on people’s coats and so on. It wasn’t terrible, but if we’d been on film and you didn’t have a digital output available, I’d have been screwed — and it’s not that long ago, either, that that was the case.”

POST: The visual effects shots by Iloura are very subtle. How many total and how did you go about dealing with them?
DONALDSON: “There are quite a few, but most of them are taking stuff out, doing touch-ups and so on. And we did choose locations that worked for the period as far as we could. Shots like the walkie-talkie falling to the ground are all effects shots, and a lot of the wide views of London streets are a mix of effects shots and real locations. With the bank building, the top of the façade is still the same as it was in ’71, but the bottom was totally different, so we photographed the top and added it to the effects shot.”

POST: Did you do a DI?
DONALDSON: “Yes, at Omnilab, and then we did the looping between London and Australia, and that worked really well. Now that post has become this global thing, thanks to digital files, you can work like that very effectively now.” (At Omnilab’s Digital Pictures, master files were shot out to digital negative via the Arrilaser film recorder. DI film recording supervisor Tony Poriazis used certain image processing techniques for the 2.35 anamorphic blow-up process. Multiple DI negatives were filmed out via the Arrilaser to replace the traditional lab interpos/interneg process. This saved generation and quality loss, as well as film dirt build-up, and improved the overall quality of the prints on the thousands of screens worldwide.)

POST: How important is music and audio for you?
DONALDSON: “I think you just can’t underestimate how crucial it is. I really love good crisp dialogue you can understand, and I love all the sound effects and music to support it, so that the whole lot weaves together into a great audio experience that supports the whole visual experience. The audio all starts with the sound recordist on the set, and we had this brilliant guy, Simon Hayes, who did all Guy Ritchie’s films and 28 Weeks Later.

“He had two great boom operators and I’m very fussy about getting good on-set tracks, so we were in total sync about that. Then we mixed in Melbourne at Soundfirm and I was very pleased with the quality of the work.

“The composer, Peter Robinson, is English and has done several of my films. He came down to Melbourne and we recorded with the Melbourne Symphony and then mixed it at Sing Sing Studios there. So we worked very closely, and his recording was being done in a room at the same place where we were mixing the film and doing all the sound effects, so it was a very tight arrangement.”

POST: Did you make the film you first envisioned?
DONALDSON: “I think it did, but anyone who says they know exactly how their film’s going to turn out at the end when they start isn’t being quite truthful because part of the process is discovering the film. For me, the creative process doesn’t stop when you finish shooting — it only finishes when you’ve done the last possible thing in post, and every day it’s a matter of, ‘How can I make this better?’ So I never want to be rooted so rigidly to a plan that I can’t take advantage of any opportunities that come up in post to improve things, whether it’s an effect or an audio cue, or whatever.”

POST: You must have seen a lot of changes in the post world since you began making films in the ‘70s?
DONALDSON: “The biggest is the digital revolution. I don’t think you can exaggerate the impact of the digital world on post today. When I began, you had to mix your film in one take! Now, in the world of digital editing and mixing, you have so much more control. And you see it in every aspect, from the preciseness of the editing, to the quality of the sound mix. And it’s just the beginning. Post gets better every day.

“Where filmmaking is lagging behind the most now is in the capture of the image. The gear is still very heavy and cumbersome, but I’m sure that will change and the movie camera will end up being not much bigger than a 35mm still camera. When that flexibility comes, I know I’ll be able to shoot films with a lot more energy and put the camera in places that are a lot more interesting.”:

POST: What’s next?
DONALDSON: “I’m developing three very ambitious projects. I don’t know if they’ll come off or not, but one of them is set in London, New York and India, and the fact that everything’s become so global now will, I’m sure, help get the film made for a reasonable budget.”