Director's Chair: Jim Field Smith - 'Butter'
Issue: October 1, 2012

Director's Chair: Jim Field Smith - 'Butter'

NEW YORK — On October 5th, Radius-TWC released Butter, a new comedic feature that looks at the competitive world of butter carving in the heartland of America.

The film stars Jennifer Garner as Laura Pickler, the wife of long-reigning champion butter carver Bob Pickler, played by Ty Burrell. When he is pressured to retire, Laura decides to enter the competition herself, but soon sees her odds of victory fading, when 10-year-old Destiny, played by Yara Shahidi, enters the event. The film also stars Alicia Silverstone, Rob Corddry, Ashley Greene, and Olivia Wilde, as a local stripper who declares her candidacy. Laura will not be denied her chance to win and is resolved to do whatever it takes, including sabotage. In addition to the theatrical release, Butter was simultaneously made available on-demand and via iTunes.

For director Jim Field Smith (pictured, below), the project marks his second long-form feature, having also directed 2010’s She’s Out of My League. Again, he called on cinematographer Jim Denault and editor Dan Schalk.

Post had a chance to sit down with the director while promoting the film in New York City recently. Here, he discusses the production challenges and post, the nuances of creating comedic features, and his willingness to embrace new technology while still upholding high standards for image quality.

Post: Why did you decide to take on this particular project?

Jim Field Smith: “I hadn’t worked for a while and there wasn’t much stuff out there. And, I am cheap. [laughs]  I loved the script. It’s kind of an oddball movie and not a lot of people are making these movies these days.”

Post: What were some of the challenges you faced?

Smith: “There was not enough time, money, days in the week. The  actors being caught in Europe under a volcanic ash cloud. 95 percent humidity in Lousisiana. How to do make the butter sculptures and make them look real?”

Post: Did you have a budget for what you had envisioned?

Smith: “Everyone came on to do this movie for scale. This is a movie that people wanted to do and we know we had to make it for a certain price. We floated various budgets around, and the budget that we ended up with was around $10 million, which seemed to give us enough scope to give us the scale of the movie we needed, and the butter sculptures and hopefully gave us enough time to shoot it.”

Post: How long was the shoot?

Smith: “The shoot was 30 days. We were shooting two years ago. The nature of movies is: you make these things and embark on the post process and try to find the right timing to release the movie. Especially a movie like this, where it’s not like a studio tent pole, where they’ve picked the date and have already figured out the marketing before you have even made it. This is very much a movie that you have to go and make, and see how it turns out and tell people about it, and what date you can release it on, where it’s going to be protected and not swallowed up. And we had the opportunity with the election that it could become part of the culture surrounding the election, so it seemed like a good date.”

Post: You’re a young guy. Does that make you more willing to embrace new technology?

Smith: “Yes. I just finished a TV series called Episodes for the BBC and Showtime, which I shot in the winter, and we shot that entirely in HD. I am tech savvy and embrace it wholeheartedly. That said, I am constantly striving to achieve the best possible look that I can, given the time and money available.

“One of my buggabears is comedy that doesn’t look good. There seems to be a lot of comedy, where they are focusing on the comedy and performances, and who gives a shit about how it looks? That drives me crazy. It needs to look good and I think you can have your cake and eat it. I don’t know why people don’t strive for both? Also, I am increasingly interested in the cross genre stuff, and I am trying not to make stuff that is just comedy. That’s one of the things that appealed to me about Butter. It is comedic, but it is smart and has a real heart to it as well. And it’s dramatic and weird. I am just about to embark on a big TV series back in the UK which is a comedy/thriller/action, which we’ll be shooting in HD.”

Post: How did you shoot Butter?

Smith: “We shot this on film — 35mm 3 perf. My DP is Jim Denault. We had worked together on my first feature, She’s Out of My League, which we also shot on 35mm. On that film at the time, Dreamworks was very much of the opinion that they preferred [we] shot on film, which my DP was very happy about. At the time, we thought it would be quicker on film and it would be easier to make the actors look good on film. You’ve got this film about a girl who is flawless, and it’s going to make it easier to make her look flawless on film than it will be in HD and in post.”

Post: So you rely on a video tap?

Smith: “Yes, for She’s Out of My League and on Butter, we’re using a video tap. Video tap technology for 35mm film has gotten a lot better, but the one thing I don’t like about working on film is the video tap. Yes, you can trust your DP and look through the ground glass, but ultimately, in comedy, it’s all about facial expressions and ticks, and I don’t like massive close ups. I tend to keep things a little bit looser. On the video tap, it’s a little hard [to see] — especially on wider shots — to judge whether you’ve got what you are looking for.

“For me, shooting on the Arri Alexa, which is my perferred camera for my television stuff and going forward, the difference of pulling up that image and working off a 17-inch monitor, where you can see everything, it changes everything. It’s not just about the actor’s expressions. You’ve got a much better sense about the set dressing and you can see stuff. You are not going to get to the DI and say, ‘I can see the mic’ or ‘There is a spot there that I am going to need to clean up.’ And I think it does ultimately save you time.

“We cut in HD as well. In the recent past, you were cutting in Avid and had 15-1 compression, and it was gnarly. You had pixels the size of your fist. And you don’t really know until you hit the DI or online where you say, ‘Eeesh?’”

Post: Was it a multi-camera shoot?

Smith: “[It was] mostly single camera, but there were days where we had four or five cameras, based on crowds. It was a very traditional process. We were digital from dailies onwards.”

Post: Who handled the dailies?

Smith: “Technicolor in LA handled that and did a fantastic job, and we did the DI with them as well. We did the final grade — our colorist, Michael Hatzer, was based in LA, but I was in New York finishing the mix, so we were doing a sync session with Technicolor New York and Technicolor LA, where the colorist was in LA and me and Jim Denault were in New York doing the final grade.”

Post: You worked with editor Dan Schalk again too?

Smith: “Dan’s my editor. We’ve done two features together now.”

Post: Does he edit as you shoot?

Smith: “Yes, he is assembling as I am shooting. On She’s Out of My League, he was with me in Pittsburgh while I was shooting, which was fantastic, because whatever minute of downtime you have as a director, you could go back — he was set up in a hotel suite — and watch assemblies of scenes and see if I had to pick up another piece or just have the affirmation that it was working. It was a huge thing. 

“In this case he wasn’t with me. I thought it was going to be problematic. We just couldn’t afford to have him with us on site. He was in LA. As it happened, it was fine. We had a pretty good dailies system and a pretty good FTP system. He was cutting and we would do iChat AV, and could show me stuff. And I could scroll back and forth through stuff. With a decent broadband connection you are fine. There is always something you can do, like ship me a DVD.”

Post: What does he used for editing?

Smith: “We were cutting on Avid. I’d speak to him every other day. He’d say to me, ‘I’ve cut this scene, you may wan to watch it.’ Or say, ‘You might want to keep an eye out if something was happening.’ Your editor is really your second pair of eyes. Weirdly, him being in LA, he was totally removed from the set and the politics of making the movie. I do think it did help. And we were so jammed on the schedule, in reality, I wouldn’t have had time to sit with him anyway.”

Post: Tell us about the dailies process?

Smith: “Technicolor has a system where everything is scanned and you have everything at your fingertips in 2K. We have a fiber optic system and a server, and an assistant editor. Me and Dan are cutting and could pull up any shot. On She’s Out of My League, we had to order up shots, but in the two years between the two movies, the system has moved on to a point where you are not having to look back through camera notes and go, ‘Can we pull take 4 because we didn’t print it?’ and have my script supervisor not having to say to me on set, ‘Which takes do you want to circle?’ which I used to hate, because as a comedy director, I want all of them. There are bits in all of them and that’s how I tend to work. I am looking for a moment and not a whole take, unless it’s a one-take scene.”

Post: How are you reviewing material?

Smith: “On Butter, I had a 40-inch LCD screen in my trailer, with a dailies box, so I had HD dailies and they would just update the box each day. Production would swap it out so I would have everything that we shot available to me in my trailer.”

Post: Tell us about working with editor Dan Schalk?

Smith: “I tend to shoot to edit, and we have a very good relationship. He tends to watch what I am shooting and take a couple of days to figure out the rhythm of what I am shooting. Then he’ll start to realize that I am expecting to be on that shot at that point. My script supervisor is making copious notes while I am shooting, and will say, ‘Jim wants to be on the wide [shoot] at this moment and don’t worry if we didn’t get it in the close up,’ or whatever it happens to be. So he is working from those notes. 

“On this movie, we were using the Script Sync feature. It’s fantastic. It’s a bolt on and extra cost, but I tend to shoot multiple [alternatives] of each line, and do a lot of improv, and what’s fantastic about it is I can say to Dan, ‘Can you show me every other take of that line?’ He types in the line and says go, and it lines them up in the source monitor. It’s a little more effort for the assistant editor when he’s loading in the dailies, but it pays off massively. It works so well.”

Post: This being a comedy, are there visual effects the audience might not be aware of?

Smith: “There’s not a great deal in the movie, and what is in there is meant to be unobtrusive. You are not meant to know there are visual effects. It’s mostly clean up. Some sky replacements, some lens flares and some burn ins. You always end up doing TV burn ins. I try to shoot those for real when I can. Frequently you are shooting a news item that’s going to appear on the screen. I try to schedule it and then actually have it on the screen so I don’t have to do a burn in. They are all unnoticeable.”

Post: Which FX house did you work with?

Smith: “On this, it was Right Lobe Design Group, small FX house in Burbank. They did a fantastic job and it was only a small number of effects, so there was no modeling. It was a little bit of painting out. A lot of stuff that you would have farmed out to an FX house, now you can do in the DI. The benefit is you are doing it live and I am sitting there and can actually manipulate the end result immediately.”

Post: You’ve done digital intermediates before?

Smith: ‘We did a DI on She’s Out of My League, and I’ve done DIs on commercials. I love the DI. We did the DI at Technicolor. It’s kind of a simultaneous DI and grade. What we usually do is establish a look. We’ll have a rough cut and at some point go and sit with the colorist and watch an Avid output of the movie. Obviously, the dailies will have had a one-light pass on them, so the dailies are close to where you want them to be. So we’ll sit and watch the movie and spot the movie. I’ll say, ‘This scene needs to be warmer; this scene we are going for an end-of-day look; this scene you are going to need to clean up the sky a bit.’”

Post: What was the look you were going for in Butter?

Smith: “It’s set in Iowa and I wanted it to evoke those deep, blue skies and the rich yellow of the corn, and the red barns. There’s a very sort of Americana kind of look.”

Post: Did you do all of your shooting in Iowa?

Smith: “It was partially shot in Iowa. We went and shot at the State Fair in Iowa, but Shreveport, Lousiana was a pretty good double for Des Moines. It looks pretty similar. The geography is similar, the architecture is similar, they have the corn, they have the big, blue skies and I really wanted to get that look.”

Post: How important is sound to a comedic film?

Smith: “Music in a comedy, particularly a comedy with heart, is incredibly important. Sometimes it’s hard to see the movie until you know where your music is going to be. Mateo Messina, who composed the original score for the movie, brought in a lot of sounds that evoke the earthiness of the characters. For Destiny, there’s a lot bass and it’s very kind of soulful, where as Laura’s music tends to be a little more militaristic and a little more marshall. There’s snare drum, and it tends to be more pompous and parade like.”

Post: Did the sound design play a role too?

Smith: “On the sound design front, we are working with butter, so we are trying to convey the sounds of the palette knife on the butter. I think the Foley team had a great time trying to create that world, and make you feel like it’s there and it’s front and center, without overpowering the movie.”