<I>Mean Girls</I>
Issue: January/February 2024

Mean Girls

Directed by Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr., Paramount Pictures’ Mean Girls puts a musical twist on the popular 2004 release. The film was produced by Lorne Michaels and Tina Fey, and introduces a new cast of students to the cutthroat jungle of high school.

Cady Heron (Angourie Rice) is welcomed into “The Plastics,” which is ruled by queen bee Regina George (Reneé Rapp) and her minions Gretchen (Bebe Wood) and Karen (Avantika). However, when Cady dares to fall for Regina’s ex-boyfriend, Aaron Samuels (Christopher Briney), she finds herself prey in Regina’s crosshairs. Her outcast friends Janis (Auli’i Cravalho) and Damian (Jaquel Spivey) are there to support the newcomer. 
Here, the directors share insight into the film’s shoot, VFX and post production, and how they brought a modern take to a story that already has a strong fan base.

How long was the shoot? 

Arturo Perez Jr.: “39 days.”

Samantha Jayne: “Originally, it was 34, I believe…And then we asked for a Hail Mary, and then we got it.”

Arturo Perez Jr.:  “The days were tight! I spent a lot of time there.”

I understand that it’s the equivalent of having put together a dozen music videos?

Samantha Jayne: “Yeah, lots of music videos.”

Arturo Perez Jr.: “And a movie!” 

A film like this is so dependent on the music. What shape was the music in when you began production? 

Arturo Perez Jr.: “I think Jeff (Richmond) was still working on the music. I remember we were shooting and they were still writing ‘What Ifs.’ We didn’t have the opening song.”

Samantha Jayne: “For a while!”

Arturo Perez Jr.: “Grease did it too. One of the songs… I think ‘Summer Loving’ — or one of the songs — they were shooting and they hadn’t written that song. I remember we didn’t get ‘Revenge Party’ until, like, two months before.”

Samantha Jayne: “But we knew the goal was always to update it to kind of this fresher, pop palette. We had many conversations with Tina (Fey) and the team about: What songs do we want to keep? What songs do we have to, unfortunately, part with? But then, once we got to that point, they started reconceiving the palette of those songs to kind of more of something that kids would listen to on Spotify, perhaps.”

Arturo Perez Jr.: “Yeah, we had the Broadway songs.” 

Can you talk about how you made use of several different aspect ratios for the social media, music video and reality scenes?

Arturo Perez Jr.: “Even at the very beginning, we don’t cut. We go from [9 by 16] through the garage door. You might not even notice it, but we don’t cut. And we go to Cinemascope. We use the garage as a way for your eyes to adjust. We wanted it to feel like this is a movie that is like with the heart and soul of a 16-year-old, but it’s a movie for the theater.”

Samantha Jayne: “Just to tack on to that — then, after you’re in anamorphic, you’re knocked back into reality — back into spherical. So it was really like always a push/pull between what’s our grounded reality and what is this heightened world like. What space do these songs live in? We only had two rules for ourselves, which were: What is the feeling and what perspective are we in?”
Arturo Perez Jr.: “In whose perspective.”

Many of the musical sequences come across as one long shot. Can you talk about those?

Samantha Jayne: “There were many sequences that were entirely one shot. For instance, Karen’s ‘Sexy’ (part 2) is entirely one shot.”

Arturo Perez Jr.: “It was never really about trying to make you feel like you’re in one shot. We just wanted to keep you engaged. For example, ‘I’d Rather Be Me’ — it’s like, okay, what’s the feeling? The feeling is: I’ve had enough! Whose perspective are you in? It’s Janice. The feeling is so Janice —cool-ish. Janice is like rock & roll.”

Samantha Jayne: “She’s raw.”

Arturo Perez Jr.: “She’s like, ‘Follow me. Don’t cut.’ So that makes sense. But for Karen, at the beginning, with the YouTube/TikTok stuff, we wanted that to feel like a makeup tutorial.” 

Samantha Jayne: “A ‘get ready with me’ kind of video. And she would do all these fun transitions, and try on all kinds of things.”

Arturo Perez Jr.: “We never tried to just push the one-take agenda. We never really had a one-take agenda. Also, practically, we had a lot to shoot and we had 39 days.” 

Samantha Jayne: “We baked-in temp rehearsals to our schedule. So first, we would shoot it on our iPhone. We essentially shot the entire movie on our phone — us and other people acting it out. So that exists somewhere. Then, we would bring it to our Steadicam operator, and fold him into the process. Ari Robbins, our DP of course.”

Arturo Perez Jr.: “I’ve just got to talk about him for a second. Ari Robbins is, I think, hands down, the best camera operator on the planet. We worked together with Justin Timberlake. We have a strong friendship and a bond. A lot of these one takes would not have been possible with the amount of time that we had, the number of them, the complexity and the technology that he used.”

How about Bill Kirstein, who was also a cinematographer on this film?

Arturo Perez Jr.: “The whole thing is a collaboration. It’s the project. Bill listens so, so well. And we had worked on music videos before. We had a strong, connection.”

Samantha Jayne: “Like a shorthand.”

Arturo Perez Jr. “A shorthand. Yeah. He’s also just the nicest guy, but he also is not afraid to go against you. He came in late in the game. But because of how everything worked out, it was like having a family member there that you could trust.
“Check out, (Justin Timberlake’s) ‘Say Something.’ That’s something that we did together with Ari too."

Samantha Jayne: “Again, live, one take, in the Bradbury Building.”

Can you talk about the film’s visual effects needs? 

Samantha Jayne: “The visual effects were really to make those social media sequences feel real, I would say. My brother, Zack Siegel, edited those social media sequences and helped with those.”

Arturo Perez Jr.: “They put an overlay (on it).” 

Samantha Jayne: “We like to do in-camera work, so in terms of visual effects, obviously we need a designer.” 

Arturo Perez Jr.: “We tried to make it feel as real as possible. We shot in a lot of locations — a lot of real locations, so it was just to enhance and to clean up where it wasn’t exactly how we like. For example, Africa. Um, how do you shoot Africa in the middle of winter?”

I heard you shot that in New Jersey?

Samantha Jayne: “Yeah, in a landfill in New Jersey!” Arturo Perez Jr.: “We made a mobile garage set, and we put it in a landfill in New Jersey. And then we had the open sky, but you could see New York City, so tiny in the background. So they cleaned up the sky, but we tried to make it feel as real as possible. We don’t personally like the CGI look very much.”

I was going to ask you about that transition at the beginning between the garage and Africa? 

Samantha Jayne: “The garage was physically at the location. At the other end of Katie’s tent, of course, when she goes from that location to the school, there’s a (blue) screen there.”

Arturo Perez Jr.: “The deep animals are VFX. And the trees are VFX.”

Samantha Jayne: “Yeah, giraffe wranglers in New Jersey are a little hard to find.”

How much of the look was captured in-camera thanks to production design versus it being applied in the color grade?

Arturo Perez Jr.: “It was so hard to watch the movie in dailies, because we knew that we were going to add something in post. We shot everything to make it feel like it’s shot on film. We shot it on Arri 35s. We shot deep focus, because film has a deeper focus. We kept seeing what we were seeing, and we were like, it didn’t feel like the way we wanted it to feel until we were able to finish the process in post. We worked with Damien (Vandercruyssen) over at Harbor, who is the best. He killed it. He’s such an artist. He did Bardo. He’s done such good work. We were always going to add this look at the end — adding like the grain obviously, but also halation…Everybody kept watching it, and everybody liked it, but I was like, ‘Don’t like it too much because we’re finishing the process at the end.’ And once everybody saw what it was at the end, it was like, ‘Oh my God!”  


FuseFX in New York City worked on 130 shots for Paramount Pictures’ Mean Girls. According to VFX supervisor Ariel Altman (pictured), the studio began speaking with the production team two years ago about the film’s visual effects needs and how they would be executed.

Early in the film, FuseFX helped create the look of the African landscape where Cady and her mom are living. The studio licensed footage of native animals and rotoscoped them for compositing into the scene, placing a number in the distance towards the horizon. In the case of the flock of birds that fly overhead and into the distance, the studio created 3D elements. The studio also handled the transition from the African tent to the school yard, where Cady begins her time at North Shore High.

Altman notes that one of the more challenging VFX sequences was unexpected — the one where Janis performs her solo for “I’d Rather Be Me.” In the scene, actress Auli’i Cravalho, who plays Janis, exits the band room and makes her way outside. The sequence appears as one long and continuous shot. However, a weather event — light snow — kept the outdoor portion of the scene from being shot that same day, and instead, the “A shot” of her leaving the classroom was intercut with a “B shot,” captured the next day.

“There were a few opportunities within that choreography to have done stitches, but we end up going with when Janis exits the band room,” Altman explains. “When Janis exits the band room, as she pauses in the doorway, there’s a moment in which Regina and Cady pass by the camera, and then the camera whips with all of them. That’s the moment that we stitch to.”

Without using motion control to repeat the shots, the camera was instead lined up manually, but giving the frame a little more room than the earlier shot. 

“We had Janis stand in so we could get a better alignment,” he recalls. “And then had Cady and Regina walk by, and the camera followed them. It was kind of a combination of a wipe using the bodies of Regina and Cady, and a pan into an environment.”

FuseFX also worked on the bus hit, which follows shortly thereafter. In it, Janis and Regina are walking from the school toward the street. When they get to the curb, a yellow school bus rushes by, striking Regina. The sequence is composed of a number of elements.

“There’s actually an interesting bit there,” Altman recalls. “Because of the long take, it’s difficult to get into a more simplified visual effects solution. We have a clean pass of Regina. We have a pass of a stunt. And we have a pass of a bus.”

The long Steadicam shot was supposed to end with the camera coming to a stop in just the right position to capture the bus hit. 

“We had the camera operator come down, and there was a position that we locked into,” he explains. “Ari (Robbins) is a machine! He actually hit that position really, really well, so that’s the main take, and the base plate doesn’t have a bus in it. Regina just stops and positions on Janis in the foreground.” 

The production then shot a pass of the bus from a locked-off camera, as well as another pass of the stunt performer being yanked off her feet by a wire. Finally, they shot footage of the students reacting to the accident, with Regina missing from the frame. The viewer gets the impression that the bus is traveling at a high rate of speed, but according to Altman, it was only going 10-20 miles per hour. The framing and size of the vehicle creates the impression of it going much faster. 

Beyond their work on some of the film’s transitions, FuseFX also enhanced confetti sequences by adding more elements in several shots. Rather than create CG confetti, the studio instead shot practical elements against blue and black screens.

“The confetti hallway was really fun and pretty simple,” Altman notes. “There was the real confetti, so for the main moment, where the confetti cannons go off, we added a little bit more to fill it out…We were actually able to leverage machine learning to extract some depth information from that shot to help layer in the confetti with the depth. It actually ended up working pretty well, because confetti is a small particulate, and it’s fast moving, (so) it’s pretty forgiving.

“Doing it as a particulate — as a CG effect — I think the visual benefit would have been minimal,” he continues. “Obviously, we’d have been able to control certain physics and behavior of it much more, but we just didn’t think it was necessary.”

FuseFX even worked on the pimple that ruins Regina George’s perfect complexion. While the blemish was actually a prosthetic that was captured in-camera, the studio did some enhancement to it during post production.

“It was a really-enjoyable project to work on,” he reflects. “Sam and Art — they’re just such wonderful, creative, kind people to work with, and very, very collaborative.”

Method Studios

Method Studios (www.methodstudios.com) contributed to a number of sequences in Mean Girls, specifically those that appear as social media posts representing TikTok and Instagram Reels. The studio also added graphics over footage and handled the main-on-end titles, which also have the look of social media user interfaces and graphics.

All of the work was completed by Method artists using Adobe After Effects. Method’s filter and 2D graphic work can be seen in approximately 200 shots, including the “Sexy” Halloween song, the talent show sequence and the “World Burn” song. The studio also applied a wet-look filter that reflected Regina George’s new style trend, and had a hand in the bus-hit sequence that leaves Renee Rapp’s character in a neck brace.

The Color Grade

Damien Vandercruyssen is senior colorist at Harbor (https://harborpicturecompany.com) in New York City and says directors Arturo Perez Jr. and Samantha Jayne, along with director of photography Bill Kirstein, called on him to make Mean Girls look as rich and filmic as possible, while still maintaining the realism and rawness the story offers. 

“During the musical numbers, we pushed the look to new heights of pop and saturation, and the different aspect ratios and lenses, combined with the grade, added a sense of magical realism,” Vandercruyssen explains.

During pre-production, camera tests were shot in order to build a few custom look-up tables that proved successful for the shoot. 

“For the DI, I used the (FilmLight) Baselight 6 system, with some new tools that I was excited to experiment with on this project,” adds the colorist. “Because of the nature of the work, I enlisted the help of colorist Oisín O’Driscoll for his expertise in commercial and beauty (work) to nail some of those beauty sequences. We used the new Halation tool extensively, varying it depending on the location and scenes, and the new face tracker for the beauty moments that we wished to control in the DI. It was helpful to have access to the beauty tools in Baselight to dial in those shots and ride with the story, as Cady becomes more ‘Plastic’ during the movie.”