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Issue: December 1, 2010

SWOT: Directors discuss the feature film business

By: Iain Blair

Despite — or because of — the ongoing grim economic picture, 2010 was a pretty good year for Hollywood. 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 , who also often write their films — Jim Cameron, Chris Nolan, Terry Gilliam and Joe Carnahan — tackle Post’s SWOT questions and air their views about the year ahead.

JAMES CAMERON 

Director

Avatar, Titanic, Terminator 1& 2, 

Aliens,The Abyss, True Lies

STRENGTHS: “To me post is all additive. On the set, it all detractive… you’ve got an idea of what the shot should be but then you run into problems and you go from a state of greater organization — how you imagined it — to a state of lesser organization… the way it actually gets shot, at 4am when everyone’s tired. Post now, especially in sound but also picture with all the digital techniques, is just constantly making it better.” 

WEAKNESSES: “The big weak link is exhibition. There’s a bright, shiny moment when the film is perfect, then you put it out there and it all falls apart. They crop it, they don’t get it in frame, the audio’s horrible — and you sort of have to pull that into your post process and know it’s never going to be as good again as the way you’re seeing and hearing it. So you have to compensate for it.”

OPPORTUNITIES: “It’s the last draft. When I write a script, I get the opportunity to rage as a writer, then it becomes the actors’ material and it comes to life but it changes, then in post I get another opportunity to rewrite the film.”

THREATS: “Time. It’s always time, and I’ve seen mistakes made in the past. On The Abyss we made mistakes under pressure. But sometimes lack of time makes you way smarter, and an idea pops into your head that would never have occurred otherwise.”

OUTLOOK ON 2011: “I think 3D will keep expanding. That particular toothpaste can’t be put back in the tube now. It’s more, what level of acceptance will it reach? In the next few years, will most movies be in 3D, or just the big tent poles? And does it follow sound, where the transition was very fast, or color, where it took 30 years for all movies to be in color? That happened because of color TV, and I think it’ll be the same here. Consumer electronics companies are already saying 3D’s the next big killer app. It’ll drive Blu-ray DVD sales, because only a Blue-ray can play 3D content, and large flat panel screens, as you need a bigger screen for 3D, so they’re jumping on the bandwagon even though the content doesn’t exist. 

“People will be watching sports in 3D at home before this industry wakes up and realizes that it’s got to go 3D. So I’m forming a company to supply cameras and production services to sports — and I don’t care about sports — because I believe in 3D as the new way to see. The next big thing that movies need to consider is that sports broadcasts have already decided that 24fps or 30fps is stupid — and they’ve gone to 60fps. We need to go to 60! We can’t have better displays at home than in movie theatres, or why would people ever go to movies? We need to switch to 60 frames. And it’s not even an aesthetic choice now — we need to do it to stay competitive! Nothing would make me happier because the problem with 3D, when you’ve got fast action, is that it raises to the surface of your consciousness — the strobing artifacts of 24-frame projection — far more than flat projection does. So 3D is showing us the weakness in the system that’s been there for over 100 years. It’s time to change!”


CHRISTOPHER NOLAN

Director

Inception, The Dark Knight, The Prestige, Batman Returns, Memento

STRENGTHS: “Time’s the big one. On the set, it’s always you against the massive financial clock ticking away, but in post you’re able to work with a much smaller team and you have the time to focus on actually making the film.”

WEAKNESSES: “It’s always the limitations of the material you’ve shot. You somehow have to make it work. Can you still salvage the film in post if you don’t have the material? No. There’s no way.”

OPPORTUNITIES: “I think 3D films are a huge opportunity. Technically it’s very interesting, but as a viewer I’m not sold on it yet. I think the dimness of the image is a big problem. As far as shooting goes, I think the post conversion process has a lot of potential. Right now, shooting 3D means basically shooting video with relatively low image quality, so I’m not interested in that. Film is still by far the best originating medium. But I do think the post conversion process has promise, if that’s what audiences want.”

THREATS: “The biggest threat I see in post is the abandonment of film for inferior video formats. It’s a problem in production, choosing to shoot digital, but it’s an even bigger problem in post if you’re not printing from the negative to see what you actually photographed. People keep saying film is dead, but I don’t agree. It still gives you the highest possible image quality.”

OUTLOOK ON 2011: “I know it’s a cliché, but the only constant is change. People are always surprised by what audiences respond to and don’t respond to. Hollywood’s both ailing and healthy — as it always it. I just think it’s very exciting place to be working.”


TERRY GILLIAM 

Director

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, 

Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Brothers Grimm, The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys

STRENGTHS: “You can fix all your screw-ups! (laughs). Post to me is the moment when I really get down to making the movie, as you’re dealing with image, sound, effects — the whole thing. The big one for me is the DI. It’s the only way. Why would anyone want to do anything else? I don’t want to see film projection anymore. I want digital projection, and DI is great! I don’t know how we even managed before. The great thing about DI for me is that you can fix your mistakes. Invariably when you’re shooting fast, you make little errors. ‘Oh no, that’s a little bit darker than it ought to be.’  Now you can just bring it up. We did all the grading for Imaginarium at Technicolor in London with Paul Ensby, and he’s brilliant. He even saved some of the effects shots at the end since we’d run out of time, and we even did effects shots within the effects shots in the DI.”

WEAKNESSES: “Having said all that, about being able to fix stuff, I never want to shoot — like so many people do — with the attitude of ‘We’ll fix it in post.’ That’s a very bad attitude. But when you do stumble, you can fix it in post. The weakness is that, with cutting,  for instance, you can cut a million versions and now a producer can get in and get their hands on it much more easily when you’re on an Avid than when it was a Moviola. The trick with the DI is to be a guy who’s been working on film, as I get bored with the process and I just want to get through it — because you can play around with it forever, if you want, and that’s bad too. You can get lost in the ability to do anything and everything. That’s the danger, and you really need discipline, or you just lose your way. For me, it’s always about trying to maintain a certain objectivity [about the post process]. That’s tough for me because I’m there every day. Other directors are far smarter — they go away, let the editor do it and then have a look.” 

OPPORTUNITIES: “You’ve always been able to do a lot of effects and so on in post, but it’s just so much easier to do now. It’s all about speed and saving money now, and the new technology gives you so many opportunities.”

THREATS: “Again, producers getting their hands on it! (laughs hard). The other big threat is exhibition. The problem with film is, you go to the labs, they’re all high-speed printing now, and you don’t know what you’re getting anymore. It’s all over the place. I hate it! With digital, you know pretty much what you’ve got, which is great. In Britain, the Film Council deserves a lot of credit for having pushed digital — and that’s what I love about 3D. It’s pushing digital. That’s the best thing about 3D. I’m not interested in 3D as a technique, but boy, it’s really pushing digital projection.”

OUTLOOK ON 2011: “It’s going to be the huge tent pole movies and a few cheap ones — and nothing in between. That’s the big problem. Budgets are either $200 million or $2 million. It’s horrible right now. All the creative people should just take the year off until the money people figure out what they want to do.”


JOE CARNAHAN 

Director

The A-Team, Blood Guts, Bullets and 

Octane, Narc, Smokin’ Aces 

STRENGTHS: “You can completely re-conceive and redesign a film in post, and the degree of theft in post and editorial is mind-blowing in terms of your ability to totally reconstruct stuff dramatically. You can make things work that were never going to work before, and the sense of discovery is what I always love most about post.”

WEAKNESSES: “It’s always lack of time. You never have enough time in post as it’s always the part of the process closest to the release date, and that’s where you can get into trouble if you’re not careful. That said, every filmmaker would just keep tinkering with the film until they grab it from you.”

OPPORTUNITIES: “Post allows you the opportunity to see the film a number of different ways, and that gives you the opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. So if you’re really diligent and paying attention in post, you become so intimate with the footage that you just start to feel the film organically and feel what it’s really about and telling you, and that doesn’t always happen when you’re busy shooting. You might feel you’re getting some good scenes, but it’s only later in post that you really understand what you’ve got.”

THREATS: “You’ve got to be very careful now that all the latest technology and tools you can use don’t get in the way of old-fashioned good storytelling and strong dramatic structure. It’s the old line, ‘Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.’ So there’s always the threat of over-extending yourself and just reaching for more CG or whatever instead of doing a reshoot. I had a shot we did for The A-Team in the pouring rain, and the effects guys removed every drop from the shot and you’d never know it. I think when you get to that point, the studios are like, ‘Well shit! We don’t need to go on any location now.’ Then it can become its own limitation.”

OUTLOOK ON 2011: “I hope we don’t get lost under the avalanche of purely giant tent pole films — and I say this only too aware that The A-Team is a long way from my early films. I’d like to see a nice balance out there. The good news is that when you get a movie like Avatar, it reminds me of how much people still love movies.”