|Peter Holland had just finished ‘Gabriel’ when David approached him. He responded well to the script but, still involved with ‘Cedar Boys’ prior to David’s film, could only make it up to the Gold Coast the weekend before the three week shoot to investigate the location and discuss the look and feel of the film.
For David, lighting was a number one consideration. He wanted silhouetted, low-key lighting using rims and kickers to separate background from foreground. “I feel that too many Australian films don't focus enough on the lighting and often the actors come out looking flat. A lot of my knowledge about lighting was developed at WETA Digital. When lighting a 3D character, the focus is often not as much on matching background plates as on beauty lighting, getting nice lights and reflections into the eyes, where the audience will immediately be focused. Lighting is about creating a mood and atmosphere.”
He also wanted to create a distinct lighting palette for each location: warm and cosy inside the house, cold and dark outside, and green and sterile in the hospital. Some of this was completed in the final grade but the overall lighting style was defined on set.
David found that Peter’s background as best-boy and gaffer really helps him understand lighting, and effectively communicate instructions to the lighting team or get involved himself to get the precise lighting the film needed.
Both David’s full script and the short contain scenes inside a prison. He had originally wanted to shoot at Boggo Road Gaol, an old colonial prison in Brisbane, but it was closed for renovations. All the other prisons available to shoot in were too modern, without steel bars or the gritty, grimy texture he was after.
So the crew built their own prison cells, which ultimately gave them more control. “We could remove roof sections and walls depending on where the camera needed to be and where lights needed to be placed. The walls are constructed out of pine studs nailed to sheets of 12mm MDF. The prison bars are just PVC piping. The sliding bar doors are of wood with PVC piping, and I knew that a convincing sense of weight and size would rely on sound effects and the actor opening and closing them as though they weighed a lot more.”
The 'hero' cell had a sink, a toilet and a wall with sections of rubber for a scene in which the actor punches the wall. They covered the walls with paint mixed with sand to resemble concrete blocks, and when the actor punched the wall, the rough sand actually cut up his hands.
David gave the prison cells detailed pre-vis in Maya to calculate the materials they needed to build them. He added a 6ft tall human model to allow the actor space to move and follow the script, including a fight with two guards next to the bunk bed. “We built four cells, the 'hero' cell where the main character Daniel was incarcerated and three other cells for background. When we were shooting inside the 'hero' cell looking out through the bars, we'd place the other three cells on the opposite side about 12 feet away. These three cells covered the entire field of view, giving the impression that they were just three of a long line of cells.
“When we shot the scenes where the guard is patrolling the cells at night, we put all four cells in an L configuration. This gave us three cells in a long line and one at a right angle. Using these two configurations, we created an entire prison.” Adding sound effects of guards opening and closing cells and distant prisoners’ voices completed the illusion of a much larger, more cavernous prison.
The three different sets for the film - the prison cells, the interior of Daniel's bedroom, and the prison visitor room – were all shot in an old warehouse with a sewerage treatment works on one side and a four lane highway on the other. It wasn’t a glamorous location and inside, space was limited because community groups used the warehouse on some nights.
“I measured the warehouse and built a 3D model in Maya, taking into account the space needed for equipment and lighting around the sets. The construction crew used the resulting elevation drawings to build and place the sets precisely, avoiding a lot of guesswork.
David broke the script down into a shot list in an Excel spreadsheet, showing all the coverage he wanted for a particular scene, and drew thumbnail sketches for each shot, indicating where actors were to be located, how far from camera they should be and any props involved. He would then note next to the shots what equipment was needed, for example, whether the shot would need the steadicam or a dolly.
“From this list, I determined the shots per day. I knew that if there were more than ten setups, we might be in trouble and I didn't want to overestimate. Knowing I had a second camera I could then work out if there were any shots that could be filmed at the same time, and which shots could be combined into a single shot.
“From this shot list I'd then work out the directions of each shot. Because the lighting was specific to a given direction, once the lights were set up I could shoot everything in that direction. For example, in the living room I'd group all those shots that pointed towards the kitchen, then the shots towards the backyard and so on. Of course, as shooting progresses you run out of time and need to drop shots or combine them. You are continually assessing and prioritising shots throughout the day.”
They found the steadicam was ideal for ‘shot combining’. A scene at the hospital where the character Daniel raises his gun and moves forward towards the glass was recorded as one steadicam shot. This would have needed about four static shots to get the same effect. When time was running out during the shoot David could use the steadicam to combine multiple shots into one, with a more dramatic, kinetic result.
Storyboarding was useful - up to a point. He had written a gunfight scene complete with moves and positions for the main actor relative to his opponent, but when they found the actual house for their location, they had to make revisions.
“We did do some video animatics of this up at a stunt training facility. We shot these on a small camcorder and edited them together. From this I determined what key pieces of action needed to be shown to the audience in order for them to follow what happens with the guns, how Daniel is kicked back, and so on. On the day of the shoot, the flexibility of someone filming with a camcorder didn't always translate into the same move for the steadicam operator. There were constraints on how low the steadicam could go or how fast the operator could move backwards.”
For the shot at the very end, they attempted a long dolly shot showing the character Peter in extreme closeup and then dollying back to reveal that he is in prison. But the focus pull was too difficult, starting with an extreme closeup and finishing with a medium shot. This was eventually shot as a static shot and additional camera angles were used to show the prison guard leaning in and shouting at him.
“This is another example that the physical limitations of the real world can't be previsalised on the computer,” said David. “You must deal with your lens’ minimum focal distance as well as how smoothly a human can pull a dolly on a set of rails. Any small shake results in a large wiggle on the final image that would have required stablising. In the end a static shot was the simplest solution.”
The film was shot out of order for logistical reasons such as availability and cost of locations, actors and equipment. A lot of the ending was shot before the beginning so it wasn't obvious to the crew how all the pieces fit together. But David had a precise plan. “When writing, I'm already visualising the film inside my head, where the camera is placed, rack focuses, tracks and dollies.
“Our first art director had to leave after the second week of the shoot and we had no script supervisor so I took on both of these roles in addition to directing. I'd schedule the shots and check that all shots were filmed for that day. I had to keep the entire film in my head. My main fear was that I'd miss something, so I'd watch rushes at 4am after the day's shooting to double check that we had all the shots we needed.”
They started post-production a week after principal photography was finished, trawling through all the footage and logging it before the editor Adrian Rostirolla arrived.
“Since we are a Windows based company, we used Premiere Pro for the editing. Adobe were supposed to release the RED importer for Premiere Pro a week before we scheduled to complete shooting. That week came and went and the importer wasn't released. As a ‘plan B', I transcoded all the footage into Quicktime in case the importer wasn't ready in time but fortunately, Adobe let me join the beta testing group for the RED importer, just a few days before Adrian arrived. We could now edit the RED footage natively in Premiere Pro.
“However, to edit in realtime with smooth playback we had to work at 512 width resolution. Even with a beefy machine we found that it had trouble playing back at 1K. Consequently, the entire film was edited at the lower resolution. We'd change the importer settings and zoom in for shots that we wanted to be absolutely sure were in focus.”
Editing in Tandem
During the shoot, all clips and audio were stored on two bare 1.5T drives put into internal caddies that plug directly into the computer. With identical local copies, Adrian and David could work with local, rather than networked drives. The drives were assigned the same drive letter so that we could share Premiere Pro projects.
Having almost immediate access to clips and 1.25TB of data was a bonus in theory but they found they couldn't create a Premiere Pro project with all of the clips. It took far too long to load and the memory usage sky rocketed. “We were running dual-core Windows Vista 64-bit with 8G of RAM, which I had thought would be sufficient but it wasn't. Instead, we had to break the project down into five minute segments, not ideal because a couple of flashbacks in the film required merging projects. We ended up with about seven separate projects. When the final edit was completed, we'd purge the projects of unused clips then merge them all into one project.
“I think in future we will transcode the footage to Quicktimes and edit using Final Cut Pro. We'll then do a conform on the RED R3D files after the final edit is locked. While it’s nice to edit the actual raw RED, it was cumbersome given the current limitations. A feature film would require approximately 8TB of data, and ideally be made available to several editors simultaneously. These bandwidth and storage requirements are simply not possible on our current system so we’ll need an upgrade.
“For everyone considering RED,” David advises, “It was definitely cheaper on the front end during shooting but your post production infrastructure will need to be high-end to manage the quantity and bandwidth of this type of footage.”
Adrian and David worked together on alternatives on some of the more problematic scenes, often merging their work together or taking pieces from one or the other. Unfortunately, they ran out of time to complete the final edit together and David ended up finishing the remaining scenes himself.
David also held three small test screenings with three or four people at a time, specifically choosing people who worked in the industry but knew nothing about the film. “I wanted fresh but critical eyes to see it. I'd then ask them questions after the screening, aiming to avoid any confusion. Many of the editing changes came from their feedback. For example, it wasn't clear to everyone that the character Daniel had escaped from prison.”
As a result, an entire scene in which a character talks on a mobile phone was given an additional audio track to include new lines that the actor recorded later in Sydney, explaining this critical plot development. The track was then edited into place. The complete scene never existed before it was created from scratch in the edit suite.
The test screenings also caused a major change to the ending, when David found he had crowded too much information into the ending for the audience to grasp in such a short time. The sequencing of events had to be spaced further apart. “I believe the most important goal of editing is to ensure the emotions and intentions of the story are accurately portrayed, even if this means the film is very different from the actual screenplay.
“That is what I love about editing. The footage opens up a world of possibilities that the script doesn't predefine. You've got to open yourself up to the opportunities that the footage presents without being shackled to the script.”
Into the unknown
When David left WETA after completing ‘King Kong’ in 2005 and started David Gould Studios, he was stepping into the unknown, giving up his visual effects career to concentrate on writing and directing. “There was so much to learn. I was fortunate to have worked on major visual effects films but felt this technology was starting to overshadow the fundamentals of good characters and storylines.”
On his own with a limited budget, the characters, rather spectacular effects, had to take centre stage. “I felt that if the audience cares deeply for the characters in your film they wouldn't be so concerned about technical marvels that our small company simply couldn't provide. I guess I went back to the roots of storytelling, stripping it bare and keeping it simple.” David's focus as a writer and director has become the portrayal of realistic, dramatic characters, using new technologies to support a strong story.
“Our animated film 'Awaken' is another example of this philosophy. While it is a 3D animated film, with the associated technical hurdles, the focus is on the characters. There is no dialog in the entire film. Empathy and pathos are created solely through the characters’ body language and limited facial animation.”
David doesn’t believe the process or technology makes this possible. A film at its most fundamental is about characters and how the audience connects to them. As a screenwriter he wants to create characters with histories, personalities and desires. Portrayed by actors with integrity, the audience will connect with such characters regardless of lighting, effects, and action. “The story and acting are what they'll remember, and what makes the best films stand the test of time.”
David notes that his background in programming and visual effects has definitely helped his scriptwriting and directing. “What they have in common is a desire to produce works that are believable and engaging. The pressures and stresses to perform are very similar. You have to think quickly and make decisions on the fly, and be good at multi-tasking. A programmer and a screenwriter both have to be very disciplined and structured in the approach to their work. They work with many constraints, identify what is not working and find ways of fixing it.
“While the key to producing high quality visual effects is a good critical eye and constant revision, a director doesn’t often get that option. Time runs out and you must find a solution then and there. The pressures are similar but the timelines are different. Overall, though, I think the most important ability is problem solving, but not only technical problems. You have to take into account other factors such as how a solution works for the narrative and the character.”
Not surprisingly, he did all the visual effects for 'Inseparable Coil' both out of necessity and because he enjoys diving in and making it happen. But after 16 years in computer graphics and visual effects he’s now starting from scratch. “This complete shift gives me a degree of freedom and control that wouldn't be possible otherwise.”