Director's Chair: David F. Sandberg — <I>Shazam!</I>
Issue: March/April 2019

Director's Chair: David F. Sandberg — Shazam!

There are superhero origin films that take themselves oh-so-seriously (you know who you are). And then there’s New Line Cinema’s latest member of the club, Shazam!

Forget brooding, navel-gazing superheroes who’d rather give up their superpowers than crack a smile, let alone laugh. This origin story is a joyful, fun-filled ride that stars Asher Angel as Billy Batson, the 14-year-old foster kid who can transform at will into the adult superhero Shazam (played by Zachary Levi), and Mark Strong as super-villain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana.

Produced by Peter Safran, whose credits include the recent blockbuster Aquaman, The Conjuring and Annabelle films, it was directed by Swedish horror maestro David F. Sandberg ( Annabelle: Creation), who assembled a creative team that included such go-to collaborators as director of photography Maxime Alexandre, production designer Jennifer Spence, editor Michel Aller and composer Benjamin Wallfisch. The film is being distributed worldwide in 2D, 3D and IMAX by Warner Bros. Pictures.

Here, in an exclusive Post interview, Sandberg talks about making the film, and why he loves post.

You’re well known for your horror background and hits like Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation —two movies that were both critically acclaimed as well as commercially successful. What was the appeal of this?

“It was a big change, for sure. The studio asked me if I’d be interested in doing it, and I didn’t know much about the character, but it sounded amazing — a kid with superpowers. But I was like, ‘Why do they want me?’ And someone told me, ‘Your last film dealt with orphans, and your movies have made a lot of money – that’s why!’ I’m definitely a horror guy, but I’ve always loved all kinds of movies, and this was a chance to tap into that fun sense of adventure in all the movies I grew up with – the Amblin films like Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters, Goonies and Back to the Future. I loved all those as a kid growing up in Sweden, so there was a lot of appeal for me.”

What sort of film did you set out to make? 

“One of those Amblin films. In many ways it’s a comedy, but it also has drama and adventure, and even a bit of horror, which makes it feel like a complete movie to me. Like Raiders of the Lost Ark, you have lots of laughs, but there’s also excitement and some scary stuff.”

What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?

“For me, the big one was all the VFX. I’ve always loved VFX and tried to do them all myself, and in my previous films I wouldn’t do a VFX shot if I didn’t know how to pull it off myself. But on this, the level of what was needed was really new to me and I wouldn’t know where to begin for some of it. So I had to put all my trust in my VFX supervisor Mike Wassel and his team. He’s done a lot of the Fast & Furious franchise, so he’s incredibly experienced, and handing it over was very liberating for me as it freed me up from trying to figure out exactly how to shoot a VFX sequence so I could instead focus on coming up with cool ideas. So then I’d discuss my ideas with him and what kind of plates and coverage they’d need to pull it off.”

I assume that on a project like this you start integrating post and all the VFX on day one?

“Exactly, and you start by doing a lot of previs and animations. We did a lot of it in our LA offices together with Proof, who then came to Canada with us for the actual shoot, and then stayed all the way through till postvis. It’s very interesting on a film like this where you have a lot of CG characters, and you can change stuff in post quite a bit. We have characters like The Seven Deadly Sins, and I was able to have them do new things in post if I had a new idea.”

Though the story takes place primarily in Philadelphia, I heard you actually shot it on location and on soundstages in Toronto, Canada?

“Yes. We were based at Pinewood, Toronto, and shot all over town – at a school, the subway, overpasses, a convenience store, and we also shot for one day in Philadelphia to get one scene and a bunch of plates. The shoot was nearly three months long and we started in February.”

Wasn’t that really tough?

“It was, especially as we shot a lot of nights in the Canadian winter. The studio actually suggested we shoot days instead, as it’d be far easier, and we’d get more hours with the kids, but it’s all set around Christmas and there are a lot of Christmas scenes in the third act, so I wanted to shoot at night so we could have all kinds of Christmas lights, and I knew it’d look so good.”

Did you shoot in 3D or was that done in post?

“It was all converted by Dneg in post, which seems to be the norm now. And though I knew that was the process, it wasn’t something we thought about much while we shot in 2D. We didn’t really try and come up with tons of shots that’d look really cool in 3D, though sometimes we’d set up a shot and go, ‘This’ll look so cool in 3D!’ Mainly, we just shot as you normally do.”

Where did you post?

“All in LA at FotoKem, in the former Jackass offices, and then we did all the sound mixing on the lot at Warners.”

Do you like the post process?

“For me it’s the part I love the most, as it’s far less stress than the shoot, and far fewer people — just you and the editor. And it’s so creative. You’re going through all the material, trying to come up with solutions to the problems you run into, and actually making the film.” 

Talk about editing with your regular editor Michel Aller, who cut Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation for you. What were the big editing challenges?

“It’s always about finding the right tone and pace and rhythm, and on this one, more so than on any other film, we used a lot of re-speeds and split screens. It’s very interesting how you can pick the best performances and then subtly alter them with pacing and how you cut them. It’s so much fun. I shot a ton of footage, which Michel was very happy about, as that gave him a lot of choices. Usually I like to do longer takes, but I quickly found out that it didn’t work as well on this film — partly because some of the kids were very young, just six or so, and you can’t get traditional coverage. We were also able to change quite a few things in the edit and post, such as a scene where Shazam and Sivana fly across the city. We already had blue-screen footage of them at the carnival, and we could change the backgrounds, and as we already had plates we’d shot in Philadelphia, we were able to make them fly across the city. But one challenge was that we had a lot of interactive Christmas lights in the carnival footage, so we had to work around all of that.”

I’m guessing that with all the CG characters there were also some interesting challenges?

“Exactly. There’s one scene at the end with a big Ferris wheel at the Christmas carnival that falls down. Originally it falls down when it’s shot at and we wanted to change that, and I had the idea that one of the creatures could just pull it down instead. So we found the right angles and footage, and then added the creature. In a film like this it’s possible to make changes like that as you not only already have the CG environments, but you have the CG characters already scanned, and when it’s a big action scene like this, you can basically just create it all in post. It’s only a big problem if you have the characters also saying something. We also shot clean plates for pretty much every set up, partly for all the VFX but also for the 3D. It was quite a hassle to do, especially when you have big crowd scenes, but it was invaluable. There were a couple of times where I wanted to change a performance, and since we had clean plates I could just put the actor in front of a blue screen and then put him in the scene, which was great and made changing stuff very easy.”

All the VFX play a big role. How many were there?

“A lot – about 1,300 shots, and we had a lot of vendors working on them, such as MPC, who were the main one, Digital Domain, Rise, Mr. X and Rodeo. But a lot of those were fixes — painting out any wrinkles, as you always want Shazam to look just like the drawn comic book character, and sometimes adding the cape in post for places like tricky stunts where we couldn’t use the cape. And then I wanted his lightning bolts to have this sort of texture, but we also used a lot of practical effects for Shazam’s lightning bolts, which were part of his suit and lit up when he shoots the bolts.”  

Do you like working with VFX?

“I do, but to be honest, it can take forever to do them and the more spectacular they look on-screen, the more boring it probably was to shoot. There’s just so much set up to shoot it, and then in post you go through so many iterations to get it right. And there’s never enough time, and while you want to keep tweaking stuff, you have a release date to meet.”

Talk about the importance of sound and music to you.

“They’re both so crucial to horror and how you make scares work, and I’m so picky. But on this I was looser, as it’s more big action, and I put my trust in sound designer Bill Dean and his team. As for the music, I wanted it to have that old-school superhero feel — very John Williams, and it’s my third film with Benjamin and he really went for it and did a great job. We mixed all the music at his studio.” 

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?

“At FotoKem with colorists Mark Griffith and Philip Beckner, and it’s super important. We had so many VFX to deal with, so I made sure we got a lot of mattes so we could go in and fix stuff, as sometimes you’ll get a shot from a vendor of a CG character and there’s too much contrast or the color’s a bit off.”

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?

“Absolutely. I’m very happy, and I want to keep making big movies like this, but also keep doing smaller ones. I want to do more horror, maybe some sci-fi, and other genres.”