Sony Pictures’ Missing is a new mystery thriller told entirely through computer screens and smartphones. Directed by Nicholas Johnson and Will Merrick, the feature opened in theaters on January 20th and follows a teen girl named June (Storm Reid), whose mother (Nia Long) goes missing while on vacation with a new boyfriend (Ken Leung). While June is thousands of miles away in Los Angeles, she creatively uses the latest technology to try to find her mom.
The filmmakers relied on cloud-based and AI-powered technology to tell their story. Editors Austin Keeling and Arielle Zakowski chose Adobe Premiere Pro, After Effects and Frame.io to edit, build shots, and design thousands of graphics simultaneously. The VFX-heavy workflow was custom-built to make the audience feel as if they’re logging in, clicking and typing along with the characters in realtime.
“Our editing process on this film began over six months before a single frame of footage was shot,” explains Arielle Zakowski. “We started with empty hard drives and began constructing a previz edit of the entire film in Adobe Premiere Pro, using screenshots of apps on our own computers and photos of our team acting out the roles to create a temp version of the movie. A lot of creative exploration occurred during this phase of the process as we brainstormed new screen moments to incorporate and discovered new ways of covering the scenes with our virtual camera.”
After production, the stills were swapped out for footage of the actors. Zakowski says the screen–life approach of the film opened up many possibilities in the edit, allowing for months of exploration and refinement.
“Once we were picture-locked, we began the process of replacing our temporary graphics with hi-res ones created in Adobe Illustrator, and used Adobe After Effects to finish the film, dialing in every detail, from the organic movements of the mouse flying across the screen to the handheld shake of the virtual camera on every shot.”
Zakowski says that on a film like this, there might be the assumption that it was screen-recorded, but in fact, it came together in post production.
“As editors, telling a story in this format allowed for nearly limitless creative opportunities,” notes Austin Keeling. “A screen-life film is created with so much more than traditional editing. We essentially production designed June’s desktop by choosing and placing what apps she has open in every scene; we used adjustment layers in Premiere to ‘shoot’ her desktop, creating the shots, zooms and pans; and we imbued character through animating how the mouse moves, darts and hesitates as June steers it across the screen.”
Because the team was not solely tied to live action footage, they were able to use screen elements to finesse and perfect every moment.
“When something in a scene wasn’t working, we could always try something completely new,” says Keeling. “Though editing a screen-life film is an incredibly complex and technical challenge, the added screen elements ultimately allowed us to bolster character beats. It became less about the technology, and more about how we could use the technology to effectively tell this story.”