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September 2014
Issue: December 1, 2010

Director's Chair: Michael Apted - 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader'

By: Iain Blair

LONDON — British director Michael Apted has led an interesting double life since moving to Hollywood in the late seventies. While helming such big studio hits as the Academy Award-winning Coal Miner's Daughter, the Bond adventure The World is Not Enough, Gorillas in the Mist, Nell and his latest release, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, he has also moonlighted as a documentary filmmaker with such acclaimed projects as Incident at Oglala, The Power of the Game, Moving the Mountain and, of course, the ongoing 7 Up series, which began in 1964.

Here, Apted, whose extensive credits also include Amazing Grace, Enigma, Gorky Park and Extreme Measures, and who was still deep in post at press time, talks about making the new Narnia film, which is being released in both 2D and 3D, his love of post and his commitment to documentary filmmaking.

POST: How did you get involved in Narnia? Wasn’t it a very drawn-out process?

MICHAEL APTED: “Yes, I’d done Amazing Grace for Walden, who were starting on Prince Caspian, and they wanted to do Dawn Treader right after that and do them back-to-back, as Lion and the Witch had been such a success. I met with Disney, went to Prague to meet with Andrew [Adamson, the producer] and the kids (actors), and I got the gig. 

“But then right away, things went awry, as they realized just how huge a job Caspian was. There was no way we could also start shooting this one too, so they sent me off on a location scout that pretty much postponed our start date for a year.” 

POST: That must have been frustrating?

APTED: “It was, very. It wasn’t a great start, and we kept being postponed. Then the next big issue was that Caspian eventually finished but cost more than it should have and more than they wanted, and then it opened and didn’t do as well as they’d hoped. 

“That sent everyone into a frenzy of doubt about the whole franchise, and the first thing they did was tell me that we couldn’t possibly do an all-location film and that we’d have to do a big chunk of it in the studio and re-conceive what we’d already planned. And what we’d done was a big scout in Europe, and then one in Australia and New Zealand, to see which one would work best. So we’d prepared both and then when they decided it wasn’t going to be a location movie, we moved to Australia.”

POST: This was a very complex production. How tough was it?

APTED: “Very tough. After the sticky start, Disney pulled out and Fox came in, and things fell into place. We had a lot to deal with. First, we were cut-price compared with the first two Narnias, and you only have the children for certain hours. But the shoot was perhaps the most fun part of it all — and usually it’s the most stressful for me. But we were all very prepared and just embraced it.”

POST: Was there any talk of shooting it 3D?

APTED: “Yes. We discussed it with Disney early on, and while there was enthusiasm, it was dismissed as too expensive. Then it came up again with Fox, and again deemed too costly. But Avatar changed everything, so then they decided to do two versions — 2D and a 3D one.”

POST: Where did you shoot, and how long was it? 

APTED: “Ultimately we went back to Queensland and spent most of ’09 there shooting on location and at the Warners Roadshow studio there. I did about 76 days with a couple of days in London for pick-ups, and 2nd unit was about a month. So it was a lot shorter than the Bond shoot, but we had so many visual effects that a lot of sets are either bluescreen or extensions, so it’s not so difficult to shoot as some regular location work. I love doing location work but the financial necessity of cutting back on that and instead creating some of the surreal sets on stages was a great idea. I don’t know how I thought I’d shoot some of these scenes on location! “

POST: Can you talk about working with DP Dante Spinotti, who also shot Nell and Blink for you.

APTED: “He seemed like the obvious choice as he does beautiful work, he’s great with actors, and he was very excited about shooting it digitally. He’d shot digitally with Michael Mann, and he was very up for experimentation and saw digital as very forward-looking, which some people don’t. They see it as the poor relation to film. We used the Sony F23, and Walden were very keen to push the digital envelope and get a whole digital pipeline going. I’d done some digital stuff but never a whole film, so it was a real education, and Dante was very helpful.”

POST: Do you like post?

APTED: “I do, although this has been much more tiring than I’d expected, because of the studio’s anxiety about getting the film they wanted. So there was certain tension between me and Fox during the editing, and it also means a lot to Walden because they have a lot riding on it. All the visual effects were harder than I expected, too, as it takes so long to do them. One problem is that there’s no real discernible rhythm to it. It starts very slowly and then as you get nearer and nearer to the end, it gets almost hysterical, which is where we are now.”

POST: Where are you doing the post? 

APTED: “We’re based in offices in Soho, London, and it’s fantastic. We have five visual effects houses on it — MPC, who are doing most of the shots, FrameStore, Cinesite, The Mill and The Senate — and four of them are within a five-minute walk, and so are the dubbing stages. It’s fantastic. This is the best post set-up anywhere. No wonder X-Men are moving in right after us.”

POST: The film reunites you with editor Rick Shine, who previously collaborated with you on several projects, including Amazing Grace, Enigma and Extreme Measures. Tell us about that relationship and how it works.

APTED: “He doesn’t come on the set much, but he’s with me from just before we start shooting, and then he starts cutting while we're shooting. He was based at the studio in Queensland and we cut on Avid [Media Composer Nitris DX], and he cuts very quickly so I can see if we need to do any reshoots or get extra coverage while we're still on the locations. 

“I’ve worked with him for ages, we get on well and I like his sensibility. I set out to make this film as emotional as possible, which I felt was lacking from the other two, especially the last one, and Rick responds to that and cuts that sort of material very, very well. So we’re on the same page without having to discuss it too much.”

POST: Angus Bickerton, whose credits include The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, was your visual effects supervisor, and obviously plays a key role.

APTED: “Crucial. I’d never really worked with a visual effects supervisor before. Even on Bond it was pretty simple effects stuff compared with this. I’d done a few quite tricky visual effects on Amazing Grace, and a bit on Enigma, but this was a trial by fire for me. Luckily, Angus is very experienced, and it’s a very close, important relationship as there’s so much money involved, and it’s a massive logistical exercise as much as anything. 

“We have nearly 1,400 visual effects shots, which is a huge amount. The biggest shock was just how long it all takes, and although I was way ahead of schedule all through the shoot, we still couldn’t seem to get ahead on the visual effects. They take so long to get going. The first few months are very slow, then suddenly it goes crazy. I’d seen the last-minute panic on Caspian and I wanted to avoid it, but it seems endemic to the process. Maybe places only hire more animation labor and so on at the end — I don’t know. But here we are, in a big rush.”

POST: What was the most difficult effects shot to do and why?

APTED: “There’s a very tricky sequence of the sea battle at the end, which has been the last thing to arrive. It’s very heavily computer-driven, with all the water and the serpent and Reepicheep with the dragon and so on. It was tough to shoot, and we spent a lot of time — over 18 months — doing previs on it, as it had to be so precise, as there was a lot of 2nd unit work too and we were all doing bits and pieces of it and needed to keep it all in order. 

“We had this massive real boat, but we did all the battle stuff in the studio, so we were in this sort of blue box with our big set, and slightly flying by the seat of our pants, as you didn’t really know what you were getting. All the stuff I shot and the 2nd unit was pretty minimal, and the real story was in all the visual effects. MPC did most of it. They did the serpent, the dragon and Reepicheep. Then other places worked on the water. Basically we mixed plates of the real sea with CG water using programs like Flowline. But it’s tricky when different vendors do different parts of the same shot.”

POST: Who did the 3D conversion?

APTED: “We’re doing it at Prime Focus here in Soho. We had 10 months to do it but you can’t get going until they see the expanse of the whole film with all the visual effects. So the first three months were just plotting it and them getting their crew together and deciding who would do what, as a lot of the legwork’s done in India, where Prime Focus runs a big visual effects operation in Mumbai and other places. So they only really started making shots around June/July. Again, they’re basically prisoners to the visual effects’ schedule.” 

POST: Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker?

APTED: “It’s so important, and composer David Arnold, who I work with a lot, came aboard at the start, even though then he had to wait two years to get going. Again, I don’t have to say much to him as we’re on the same page. Sound and all the sound effects are very important on this as I’m creating these surreal worlds. 

“The children visit different islands and I wanted each one to have a different look and a different sound, and in this fantasy stuff you have to create your worlds from the ground up. We’re doing all that here at De Lane Lea. I also want to avoid that trap with big films where they get so noisy and it becomes tiring for the audience. I wanted with the music and effects to give it some variety and not just blast the audience out of their seats the whole time.”

POST: You do a DI for 2D and 3D?

APTED: “Right, and we built our own DI suite in the cutting rooms, along with a 3D screening room and a 2D one. It’s not that complicated doing both, except that for the 3D one you have to compensate for the loss of light when projecting.”

POST: This is so different from your usual films. Did you like doing a huge fantasy piece?

APTED: “We’ll see. Hopefully, I pulled it off. It was a big challenge and a chance I wanted to take as I’d never done anything like it before. So I thought, at my age it’s great to try something new. I learned so much about areas I knew nothing about, like all the visual effects, let alone 3D, which was a bit of an afterthought. Even though it was a bit chaotic, I do find these big films quite seductive. It’s thrilling to know there’s an audience out there waiting for it.”

POST: What’s next?

APTED: “I think I’ll do something much smaller.”

POST: Will you keep making docs?

APTED: “Yes. I do 56 Up next year. I really love making documentaries, and I’ll always keep doing them.”