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Issue: December 1, 2009

SWOT: DIRECTORS' OUTLOOK

By: Iain Blair
Thanks to the shaky economic climate, the past year has been a very bumpy ride in Hollywood. Even so, audiences, happy to forget the recession and their financial woes for a couple of hours, headed to the theatres in healthy numbers, especially to see anything light and escapist. Here, four top directors — Sam Raimi, J.J. Abrams, Shawn Levy and Carlos Saldanha — whose films all connected with audiences everywhere, sounded upbeat for the most part as they tackled Post’s SWOT questions and aired their views about the year ahead in terms of post technology and films.

Sam Raimi
Director
The Spider-Man trilogy, Drag Me To Hell, The Evil Dead, A Simple Plan, Army of Darkness

STRENGTHS: “That I’m able to refine and keep refining the original idea of the screenplay, and it’s a process where I can once again be precise about the original intentions of the film. I love the fact that I can keep adding effects in post and keep experimenting with the film, and the fact that the DI gives you such amazing control now over every frame.”
WEAKNESSES: “It can get very expensive and sometimes there are so many possibilities in post that you have to keep a strong vision in your head of where you want to go.”
OPPORTUNITIES: “Because a filmmaker can still use Final Cut Pro, and it doesn’t cost that much, there’s a lot of opportunity. I don’t want to complain about the big professional services. They sure have fine technicians and incredible artistry at a [the big DI houses], so I don’t want to complain about the prices because I’m so enamored of the great quality they can produce, but you can do a lot of stuff in post without spending a fortune now.”
THREATS: “After you’ve done months of post and have the picture and sound exactly how you want it, it’s pretty depressing to see your film screened in a bad theatre with terrible sound. I think that’s still the weak link.”
OUTLOOK 2010: “The big problem in the year ahead is that the studios are going to be making a lot fewer films because of the bad economy, so that in turn means filmmakers are going to have a much harder time finding financing for their projects. But with the right project, audiences will always turn out, so bad as it is, I feel things will turn around. People will always want to forget their worries.”

J.J. Abrams
Director/Producer
Star Trek, Mission: Impossible III, Lost, Cloverfield

STRENGTHS: “Because I look at the whole process as one thing, I almost don’t know how to disconnect the post process from the rest of the filmmaking process. The fact that you can kind of do anything now is, on the one hand, great, but like any other aspect of the process, it begs the question, ‘But what are you going to do?’ So it really is an extension of production now, what you’re able to do given the resources. So for me, the strength with writing or shooting, is the ability to best realize the story you want to tell.”
WEAKNESSES: “Exhibition quality sometimes really frustrates me. My wife’s from Maine and sometimes I’ve gone to see films there at certain theatres and I just want to kill myself. You just sit there and feel, this is the anti-experience, the worst way to see a movie. But hopefully with digital cinema here now, the base line of what films look and sound like will finally become more consistent.”
OPPORTUNITIES: “Clearly there are amazing tools available now that give you all these opportunities to create and do almost anything, especially when you combine what can be done digitally with animation and compositing, and combining shots and being able to take a moment where an actor was speaking and wishing he hadn’t, and suddenly he’s not. And not only being able to replace a line of dialogue, but having an actor say something on-screen that he hadn’t originally said — that’s amazing.
“I remember in Star Trek there was this one shot I absolutely hated, that I wished had a foreground element. So when we did the DI with Stefan Sonnenfeld at Company 3, we literally added these out-of-focus black marks that made it look as if there were all these foreground elements, and the shot was so much better. It was like a visual effects shot that we just did in the DI room.”
THREATS: “Again, it’s a quality thing. If theatres continue to give audiences a poor movie-going experience, especially in terms of poor sound and picture, it hurts everyone. But I do feel that’s improving.”
OUTLOOK 2010: “I’m very optimistic about movies in general. Even on slow weekends in the last year, attendance levels have been up, so I’m hoping that movie-going will continue to increase and that theatre owners will have the incentive to make the experience better. The bad economy is obviously affecting us all, but if the result is that fewer films get made and get a longer shot in the theatres without being pulled within a week of release, that’s a good thing.”

Shawn Levy
Director
Night at the Museum 1 and 2, What Happens in Vegas, The Pink Panther, Cheaper By The Dozen

STRENGTHS: “Technology and the post process have now evolved to a point where you are really still remaking your movie through the end of post production. You’re able — through every single thing in the process, ranging from editorial to the complexity of sound design to the DI — to continuously mold, adjust, tweak and in many, many small ways, remake your movie until you’re absolutely satisfied.”
WEAKNESSES: “There’s no question that theatre projection is still lagging way behind. Many directors like to theatre hop on their opening weekend and hide in the back and see their film play with regular paying audiences. But I never do that. I find it agony, because nine out of 10 times the sound or the picture is substantially crappier than what I made and intended. And I literally cannot bear to watch or listen to my film played on sub-par projectors or sound systems. So the lack of uniformity, the lack of consistent quality in exhibition is sometimes very, very frustrating, and it really is the weak link in the whole chain.”
OPPORTUNITIES: “I’ve found it very encouraging to be able to get new ideas late in the game, and then execute them. The ability to make changes on the fly, even deep in the post process, is very gratifying, as it means you can still be very creative right up until the very end, and there are always ways and time to implement those new creative ideas. My films always have a lot of improvisation and that carries over into the post process, so it’s great for me to have those opportunities.”
THREATS: “Here’s the thing: You can do a lot of the filmmaking process down and dirty, but it’s very hard to do a good job in post down and dirty. There are still hard costs that are just unavoidable, and it’d be nice to see the post stage democratized in much the same ways as the shooting process has.”
OUTLOOK 2010: “There’s so much talk about film being dead. Look, I shot the first Night with DP Guillermo Navarro, and the second with John Schwartzman, and as long as there are phenomenally talented shooters like those guys, who are staunch and vehement advocates of film over digital, film will not die. Maybe in a decade or two, we’ll see that shift, but I still personally know too many DPs with power and clout who believe passionately in the superior quality of film. So, to paraphrase Mark Twain, ‘Reports of film’s death are greatly exaggerated.’”

Carlos Saldanha
Director
The Ice Age trilogy, Robots

STRENGTHS: “[When making a film] you always have to be aware that something could go wrong until the very last minute, so for me post is crucial in keeping the focus. It’s not like you create the movie and walk away. You have to focus on every step — putting in music, sound effects, doing the color timing — it all needs to be very manicured, and it all comes together in post.”
WEAKNESSES: “A lot of people complain about the high costs, but I don’t get too involved in all that. I do know we have a lot of pressure and I always wish we had more time for post so we can afford to make mistakes or experiment with ideas. The biggest weakness for me is that once it’s in post, it’s almost out of your hands. And then you see stuff you want to fix but there’s just no time on the schedule, and you have to live with it. So it’s all about time and money.”
OPPORTUNITIES: “It’s amazing what you can do in post with elements like sound effects and music. They really can help you make the movie so much better, and the opportunity to make it better never really stops in post. Even when we do the color timing, you can juice it up and make it brighter and more fun, like you want to reach out and touch the screen.”
THREATS: “For me it’s always lack of time, which impacts everything in post. And I have to say the film part of the whole process is the least exciting part for me, because coming from an all-digital world, where everything is pristine, it’s always a bit of a letdown to see it on film. The colors are always off a little bit, even though now it’s so much better than it used to be. And then when it goes out to the theatres, God knows how it will look! They may have the wrong bulb on the projector, even the wrong sound. So Blu-ray is our hope!”
OUTLOOK 2010: “It’s funny, because although the economy’s really bad, movies are this great escape and more people seem to go because they’re still cheap enough and good value. So I’m hoping that will continue and box office will keep growing.
“At the same time, the studios are thinking hard about making smarter choices in what movies they make now. They can’t afford to spend millions on projects that they’re not sure about, so there’ll be fewer films, but maybe better ones. And Blue Sky/Fox has always been very targeted in their approach. We’re not some big, bloated studio pumping out tons of productions. We’ve always been very focused on the movie we’re making. And I do see the current economic crisis as an opportunity to reshape the whole business. It’s not always about big stars and high budgets. It’s more about good ideas. And some of the biggest films of the year haven’t even had big stars.”