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Dispatches from PyeongChang: Editing the Olympics (Part 3)

Growing up, I was always glued to the Summer or Winter Olympics. And as a young and ambitious video nerd, I wondered what went into the incredible number of visual stories being told. Luckily I crossed paths with editor Mike Api who is currently in PyeongChang, South Korea, freelancing for NBC in his second Olympic Games. Mike’s “unit” is in the “Control C/Graphics Ingest” unit — that is, the department that cuts promos, sponsorship enhancements, and a few athletic features (or in other words, packages and profiles).

Mike is sending me periodic dispatches from PyeongChang, where the athletic highlights and stunning stories continue to pour out. Check out part one to get started on his journey.


Mike's Olympic 'stache next to the Olympic flame.

What's a typical day like for you now that the games are in full swing?

We work twelve hour shifts and I'm on a 2pm-2am workday this time around. My producer and I have to cut two new pieces every day for a primetime show on NBC affiliates - a show open and a highlight "lookback," which is like a highlight montage of the best moments or stories from that day. Beyond that we'll help out with other deliverables as needed, cutting promos, finishing pieces the day shift didn't have time for, and crashing* on new pieces that may pop up on the spur of the moment (which happened just this week after the men's skiathlon).

* - "Crashing" is an informal term for quickly cutting a new piece from scratch, usually because of some unexpected development or breaking news. In our case, we were asked to crash on a piece telling the story of Norwegian cross-country skiier Simen Hegstad Krueger's... in the men's skiathlon. (He crashed and broke a pole at the start of the 30km race, fell to dead last and made a miraculous comeback to win gold, passing all 63 skiiers in the process.) The whole thing was done with announcer calls from the race, so it was basically us digging through the hour-15 behemoth for little bits and pieces to tell the story coherently. There's more I would like to do with it, but I think it came out pretty cool nonetheless.

[Watch Mike's crash piece on Krueger's comeback on NBC's website -- it's really good.]

Do you get to actually watch anything, on TV or in person?

Yes on both accounts! We're surrounded by TVs with feeds from all the Comcast Olympic stations as well as direct feeds from the venues so we can see literally everything! I got to attend about ten or twelve events down in Rio but I was also on a 2am-2pm shift, so by the time my day was done there was a ton of things I could go see.

Here in PyeongChang it's a little different since I'm out at 2am and my window is a bit more limited. I'd like to see some luge, bobsled, snowboarding, ski jumping, and alpine downhill if I can swing it. Also, Japanese broadcaster NHK has a special Super High Vision* theater set up in the IBC, broadcasting events both taped and live in stunning 8K/22.2 surround sound. They're testing and preparing for Tokyo 2020 (and have been for years). I saw figure skating yesterday and it looked and sounded like I was sitting in the arena, it was incredible.

[Editor's note for the nerds: NHK's SHV is 7680x4320 10/12 bit 16:9 at frame rates of 59.94, 60, or 120. New to the Super High Vision for this Olympics is the addition of HDR for all events.]


Outside the Super High Vision Theater

Are there any special circumstances you have to watch out for in South Korea?

Nothing too crazy aside from the bitter cold and brutal wind. I've talked to a lot of Olympic long-timers who say this is by far the coldest Games they can remember, which is bonkers considering we're not that high up (around 2300ft) and we're about even with San Francisco latitudinally. I'm lucky enough to be in an edit bay all day. I can't imagine what the camera ops, mixers, photographers, and other production personnel are dealing with out their in the deep freeze.

What's been the best moment of the Olympics so far?

The best moment I've seen so far has been that crazy skiathlon comeback I mentioned earlier, but there are new amazing moments happening every hour. Take your pick: seventeen year old American Red Gerard winning Gold in slopestyle snowboarding (the USA's first medal); figure skater Mirai Nagasu's gravity-defying triple axel; Canada's Philippe Marquis qualifying eighth in moguls with a torn ACL, which is like the most insane thing I've ever heard. Literally every hour of every day some new record is set or a new compelling story develops. And it's still only Day 3!

What has been a personal highlight so far?

My personal highlight so far was getting the opportunity to cut a piece for the Opening Ceremony called Meet Team USA. It was a short stat-heavy feature that aired right before Team USA entered the stadium for the parade of nations. We worked on it in our down time for about 4 or 5 days and I'm really proud of the result. (I'm always my own worst critic and never feel like anything I work on is really ever 'done,' so this was a first for me.)


MEET TEAM USA from Mike Api on Vimeo.



Basically we started with a long script that was essentially a ton of numbers and names. We knew just yelling figures at people would get tired after a while, so we recorded a scratch VO, picked some music, and went to town pacing it out how we thought it should sound. From there we added some nat sound pops and announcer calls where we felt we needed a little break from the narration. (IMO, this is pretty standard documentary process - lay down your sound first and then elevate it with good visuals to tell the story.)

As my fantastic producer Scott and I mined for better and better shots, the Graphics department built us some cool full screens and animated titles, and hosts Katie Couric and Mike Tirico recorded the voiceover. As always, things kept popping up last minute (in this case athletes dropping out of the Games due to injuries), which meant new graphics as well as new voiceover - not the easiest thing to coordinate when you're hours away from the Opening Ceremony. Once we locked our cut we sent it off to [the NBC Sports home base in] Stamford, CT to be mixed, dropped in the final mix and exported to our playback server about 2 hours before the start of Opening Ceremony.


Mike's Media Composer timeline for Meet Team USA.

How does the constraint of time and deadline work for you in this environment?

In all of these cases, I find myself thriving off the high pressure and time constraints. It forces you to be more decisive and quickly recognize what you like or dislike. You do a lot of relying on your gut instincts since you just don't have the time to second guess yourself or flounder around in "well, I don't know" land.

You have to be creative off the top of your head, trust your teammates, brainstorm new ideas, collaborate, and try things out. Like I've mentioned in previous posts, SOMETHING has to air, so you need to get image and sound on a timeline one way or the other. Personally, I love working like that because at the end of a shift, it's on the air, out of my head, and I'm onto the next thing with a fresh mindset.


Navigation in the buildings.

NEXT: Read Part Four!


Posted by: Kylee Peña on Feb 17, 2018 at 6:07:11 pm olympics, post production, mike api, editing

Dispatches from PyeongChang: Preparing to Edit the Olympics (Part 2)

Growing up, I was always glued to the Summer or Winter Olympics. And as a young and ambitious video nerd, I wondered what went into the incredible number of visual stories being told. Luckily I crossed paths with editor Mike Api who is currently in PyeongChang, South Korea, freelancing for NBC in his second Olympic Games. Mike’s “unit” is in the “Control C/Graphics Ingest” unit — that is, the department that cuts promos, sponsorship enhancements, and a few athletic features (or in other words, packages and profiles).

Mike is sending me periodic dispatches from balmy PyeongChang, where it is currently mid-afternoon on a Sunday and 20 degrees Fahrenheit, on track to be one of the coldest Games in recent memory. Check out part one to get started on his journey.


Mike with the Winter Olympics mascot Soohorang (수호랑) and Winter Paralympics mascot Bandabi (반다비).

When does the Olympics actually start? Why are you there so early?

The Opening Ceremony is Friday, February 9th, but technically the Winter Games start on the 7th. There are usually some events that take place before the OC because there's such a huge number to get through and scheduling & broadcasting them all means there has to be some crafty logistical maneuvering. There will never be any medals presented before the OC, but some early round robins/preliminary events get the early go. (In this case it's biathlon, luge, alpine skiing, and ski jumping.)

We get here almost two weeks before the opening because there's a lot of work to do! On the editing side, we have a ton of promos, sponsored content, and all sorts of different elements to create beforehand. There are also pieces that were cut in Stamford, CT that will need to be either finished, upgraded*, voiced, or totally recut depending on late-breaking developments (e.g. - if someone gets injured before the Games or if a shoe-in athlete we've been producing a feature on doesn't end up making the Olympics, which always happens). The studio and engineering crews have been here for much longer, building and testing all the studios and technical infrastructure. None of this was here a few months ago!


The International Broadcast Center being pieced together.

This year is especially complicated because it happens to be NBC's turn to broadcast the Super Bowl (in the same week no less!), so a good portion of the crew is still working on that.

Beyond that, we're still shooting new pieces that will need to be cut, colored, voiced, mixed, and ready to go later this week! (To be clear, this isn't due to a lack of planning - some things just aren't possible to do way ahead of time, especially any pieces that involve the athletes physically being in Korea. And again, things always come up.)

* - "upgraded" refers to upgrading the footage. The standards for visuals are very high, so we're always tweaking until we're happy with every shot in a piece. For instance, we may cut with "dirty" (texted) placeholder footage from an old race until we get our hands on better angles or better quality replacements. "Specialty" shoots are where we get the really pretty, really stylized b-roll and scenics that sports tv is known for.


Seoul, South Korea.

In the days leading up to the beginning of the games, what kinds of things are you doing or preparing, in general?

You name it. We're prepping a bunch of pieces we can't actually edit until we get competition footage, cutting a big preview show, cutting all those new late-breaking pieces I mentioned earlier, cutting dozens of sponsorship enhancements* (branded content that act as in-broadcast highlight reels while also serving as ad time), all sorts of jazz.

Right now I'm cutting a special Meet Team USA piece that's going to air directly before the USA walks into the Opening Ceremony! (No pressure at all, right?)

[*An example of sponsorship enhancements would be if Creative COW sponsors the Games and buys 12 sponsorship enhancements with a focus on "teamwork." So as the Games go on, we'll have to deliver 12 mini highlight reels with an emphasis on the best team moments - teammates picking each other up, passing the baton during a relay, celebrating together, etc. People often dog the Olympics for being too ad-heavy, but the fact is without sponsors like Coca-Cola (who is not paying me to say this), we wouldn't be able to broadcast the Games across the world. It's also how they manage to keep the courses, fields, and rinks clear of any advertising.]


Home for the month.

What have you learned is important to bring with you when you work on location in a foreign country?

Copies of your passport are crucial because it can take a really long time to replace a lost passport. Scan it, email it to yourself, and email it to someone else. Prepare a list of emergency contacts in your phone and also keep a physical copy on you. If you wear contacts - bring extras! It sounds obvious but I've gotten burned a few times when a lens popped out or ripped at the beginning of my trip and I had no backups.

It should go without saying but you also need to bring a respectful attitude and be mindful that you are, in fact, representing your entire country abroad. *This is especially important for younger people.* Sometimes you're excited to travel abroad and let loose, but you have to understand that the image you're putting out there is representative of (in our case) the United States and the NBC network. This isn't your home. It's someone else's. You can get plastered and be loud on the LIRR [Long Island Rail Road] and get a few stares but do that in another country while wearing your company logo and that's the image people will associate with the United States. It's not a very good look. 


Sight-seeing in Seoul.

How do you prepare emotionally for such a high intensity job that lasts for so long?

Finding a good rhythm and taking care of yourself is essential on these long hauls. The Olympics is definitely a grind; we're pulling 12-hr days 7 days a week for a month straight. If you're staying up late all the time or not eating properly and not getting enough rest it'll catch up to you, your body will shut down, and you won't be productive.

Psychologically, you really need to focus in on the task at hand, forget about social media or any other distractions. and operate on a Left-to-Right mentality. (That's a reference to putting things down on a timeline from left to right, getting ideas onto a sequence rather than wondering IF an idea is going to work.) Just try it and then adjust - after all, something is going to have to air. This is an approach I take to any project, no matter the pressure. Then go back and make it pretty when you have the time. This is not to say there isn't time to think and be creative, but you need to be efficient and focused.

What are you doing in your downtime?

(What is this "downtime" you speak of?!) I try to relax after work, get a good meal in and alternate between doing nothing and doing...something. And it almost always involves food (naturally). In Rio I did a lot of wandering around the Olympic Park checking out different events, and a bunch of days were spent exploring nearby towns. Here in PyeongChang, I happen to be at a hotel smack dab in the Mountain Cluster where nordic combined, ski jumping, and snowboarding is going down.



I have eaten my weight in Korean fried chicken, barbecue, kimchi, and all sorts of fun treats. We're also pretty close to the slide centre so I definitely want to catch some bobsled and luge. We're also pretty close to the high speed train that takes us to the Coastal Cluster where hockey, speed skating (!!), figure skating, and a host of other events are happening. We got an unexpected day off on Friday and took the train to Seoul, which was pretty amazing. Once we really get into the thick of it, I'm sure there will be days where I don't want to do anything but eat dinner and relax. It's a delicate balance of exploring while being mindful of how much rest you're getting.



[Editor's Note: Mike also got a scary warning text this weekend. It turned out to be warning of the impending cold wave. Which is also scary, but not in the way he was probably imagining.]



NEXT: Read Part Three!



Create Visual Art with Adobe, Be in a BØRNS Music Video

The name BØRNS may or may not be familiar to you at first glance — after all, you’re probably here for video stuff, generally speaking — but I can almost certainly guarantee you’ve heard his music — especially Electric Love, which hit over 20 million views on YouTube when it was released and subsequently certified platinum. BØRNS, now in Los Angeles, is from roughly the same area of Michigan as my extended family. Despite his humble midwestern roots, he’s nothing like (most) of my relatives: described as glam rock, indie pop, and everything from eccentric to exotic to enigmatic.

But underneath his falsetto synth pop, BØRNS is an artist filled with creativity, thriving in inspiring art in others. To follow that — and the release of his new album Blue Madonna which will take him on tour and to Coachella — BØRNS is partnering with Adobe to foster visual art inspired by his new song “We Don’t Care”. The end product will be edited by BØRNS (in Premiere Pro, of course) and the winner will be featured in a music video and get the chance to come to LA to meet him. (Hurry up and get going on the Creative Brief — the contest ends February 6th.) Music-inspired projects that interpret lyrics and emotions are a fascinating way to explore one’s technical and storytelling skills, and participants can view other entries in a gallery to be inspired by one another as well.



I had an opportunity to speak with BØRNS about his role in editing the final product for Adobe’s contest, as well as his thoughts on creativity and visual arts.

Creative COW: Why did you want to partner with Adobe for this challenge to your fans? Can you tell me more about how this will play out and what the end result will be?

BØRNS: So many fans tag me in the most creative and beautiful art work and collages based on my music that when the opportunity came up to partner with Adobe, I jumped on it. The whole concept is letting everyone go wild and create a stunning universe for me to perform in.

How does inspiring art and self-expression in those around you feed your own creative process?

Art is a constant collaboration whether you admit it or not. You’re collaborating with thousands of years of ideas every day. Anyway I can change my creative process and inspire others, I’m into.

As a native midwesterner like myself, how did you learn to tap into your creativity in a place not known on the surface for such a thing?

There are so many musicians are visual artists from the midwest. It must be in the water there. I was always just trying to create my show to take on the road.

You've spoken before about the early impact of different kinds of music, but can you recall any formative experiences in visual art?
Yes, I would frequent art studios where I grew up to see what local painters were working on. I used to do a lot of painting and drawing when I was young.

Music videos are one of the best places for experimentation in video, and they're one of the first opportunities visual storytellers begin to hone their craft. What do you enjoy about music videos today? What can emerging artists (or aspiring artists) get out of the process of putting visuals to sound?

There are a plethora of formats to work with. My favorites are Super8, VHS, old iPhones. I love seeing different eras of technology side by side. It creates an interesting nostalgia. And when you put movement so sound, you’ve created a universe: You put someone into the scope of your thoughts. That is extremely powerful.

Much of creation is about risk. Does vulnerability play a role in your life as a musician?

Being vulnerable to the muse and knowing when to use your power.

Where do you find new inspiration for each album? What can we expect from your next single, and how do you hope to carry that vision through to the music video?

Inspiration just falls into place. I’m open to the world through travels and relationships. “We Don’t Care” is a song about finding someone that takes you out of a superficial world and the ironic part is the video will be the most beautiful superficial world you’ve ever experienced.







Posted by: Kylee Peña on Jan 30, 2018 at 6:50:28 am adobe premiere pro, borns, music videos

Dispatches from PyeongChang: Editing the Olympics (Part 1)

Growing up, I was always glued to the Summer or Winter Olympics. And as a young and ambitious video nerd, I wondered what went into the incredible number of visual stories being told. Between pre-cut packages and live footage and montages put together with moments that had happened seconds ago, I couldn’t fathom what went into the teams who created this media.

Lucky for all of us, among the nerds I have been grateful to cross paths with is LA-based editor Mike Api. (That rhymes with “happy”.)

For the next few weeks, Mike is in PyeongChang, South Korea, where he’s working as a freelance editor on the Olympics for NBC. Having been through the Olympics editorial experience before — the Summer Games in Rio two years ago — he knows he has a lot of interesting stories to tell us while he’s working.

He also knows life gets crazy on location, so I’m helping him to tell his stories as best we can as they happen. I don’t know how often I’ll post a new dispatch, or how long it’ll be, or how illustrated we’ll make it. But I’m going to ask him a few questions every few days, and he’s going to tell me what he can, and we’ll all have a great time.

Ya’ll, I know the Winter Olympics has its high drama, it’s ups and downs and emotional beats on the skating rink or the ski slope. Wait ’til you hear about the twists and turns of the edit suite. (Think I’m being dramatic? Read below about playing live to the world via an Avid sequence and try not to scream.)


First day in Korea, decked out in swag.

Mike has worked in a bunch of different genres – reality, news, documentary, sports, narrative, music videos, sketch comedy, even a syndicated Good Housekeeping special (if you need advice on the best oven mitts out there, let him know). Most of his unit has been through at least five or six Olympic Games — with one friend, Paul, having been at it since Atlanta in 1996. There are lots of departments that work on all kinds of custom opens or late-breaking features. Mike’s “unit” is in the “Control C/Graphics Ingest” unit — that is, the department that cuts promos, sponsorship enhancements, and athletic features (or in other words, packages and profiles). (To add to the scope of the Olympics, his unit cuts a lot of features, but the large majority of them are done by another unit called Daily Stories. And the deep-dive cultural and investigative pieces are produced and edited over the course of several months, some over several years. They are constantly being rewritten and upgraded right up until the start of the Games.)

“There is a wealth of experience around me, for which I am eternally grateful. Not a day goes by where I'm not inspired by someone else's work or approach to it. I'm a naturally curious person, so these trips are like nerd-brain overdrive for me.”

Mike set off for PyeongChang yesterday and answered my first batch of questions from his Air Korea flight.

What is the process like for arranging travel and going to work in a foreign country — logistically and emotionally?

The NBC logistics people handle all of our travel arrangements and honestly have the most insane job of all. There are thousands of NBC staff and freelance employees from all over the world on-site at each Olympics. That's thousands of plane tickets, hotel rooms, airport transfers, and visas every two years. Not to mention all the cancellations and delays that go along with traveling around the world. It's really impressive.

To say this job is “exciting” would be a gross understatement. The fact that I get to play with this unbelievable material and contribute to such a massive production is something I really cherish. This time I'm doubly excited because I was obsessed with the Winter Olympics as a kid!

That said, my mind is so scattered from wrapping my last job, buying stuff and packing for Korea, and prepping my next project that the reality of what I'm about to do hasn't really sunk in yet.

(Hell, I left my passport at home this morning. HELLO? IS THIS THING ON? I LEFT MY PASSPORT AT HOME. I remembered my sack of Reese's Pieces but forgot the only acceptable form of identification I can use to travel.)

It'll probably hit me once I'm sitting at my Avid on day one, dipping into the footage (which, again, is the most unbelievable footage in the world. I could go on for hours about our cinematographers).


Mike's caption for this was "dope a** inspiring signage" which I think is sufficient.

Tell me about your experience the first time around in Rio. Surely you had a cool experience or two.

Getting the chance to see Olympic events in person is a dream come true. In Rio, I got to see some cycling, swimming, indoor volleyball, fencing (which looks like Tron meets Star Wars and is so damn intense), as well as the US women's gymnastics team gold, the US men's basketball gold, and the single greatest sporting event I've ever been to: the men's beach volleyball gold medal match between Italy and Brazil. It was at midnight on Copacabana Beach in the pouring rain, and by pure luck I snagged a seat in the first row right in front of the Brazilian team. It was insane, the stadium was literally shaking. I was about 20 feet away from the athletes (and completely surrounded by maniac Brazilian fans completely losing their sh-t.) I'm in the background of the medals ceremony awkwardly clapping and shivering.



Beyond that, it's an indescribable rush to edit something — sometimes in only a matter of minutes — and then immediately see your work on the air as a part of the biggest broadcast event on the planet. As a video nerd who lives for behind the scenes stuff, seeing how the sausage is made is my favorite part of the experience.

What’s the craziest thing that happened in Rio?

The craziest thing that happened in Rio came on my very first shift. In fact, it happened right at the start of my first shift.

We were about to open up the first day of the broadcast with a roll-in of the most grandiose Rio scenics we had, accompanied by the classic Olympics score. It's the FIRST thing anyone watching NBC sees of the Olympics — the biggest, swooping establishing shots that have to set the scene for the following three weeks, over which our hosts do their live introduction.  A few minutes before air (six, maybe ten minutes), the roll-in failed on the server and wouldn't play. (There are a lot of steps we have to go through as far as naming conventions, codecs, and exports to make sure it plays out and for whatever reason, it failed.) 

My supervising producer, showing incredible faith (or perhaps I was the only goon available) gave me the task of banging together a new open - which we did from a bin of scenic selects I happened to start the day before when we were setting up our machines. With no time to export a new cut, we played the open LIVE onto the air straight from my Avid. I've rolled out live-to-air a handful of times in my life but never anything remotely close to this type of pressure. We got the shots, got the music, timed it all out, gave it some pad, and carefully hit the spacebar. My edit bay, now filled with producers and curious PAs, went pin-drop silent and I don't think anybody exhaled until it was finished. That was my welcome to the Olympics.


The ski resort complex where Mike is staying.

What’s next once you land?

Once we land we'll do the accreditation of our media credentials, make the three hour bus ride to PyeongChang (this year's Games are the most remote in history) and get some shut eye. We have a day of acclimatization and hit the ground running on Tuesday, Jan 30th. First up is workflow training with our brilliant senior post supervisor, catching us up on this year's process and any new features we'll be incorporating. We usually have the latest build of Media Composer as well as our own dedicated team of techs from Avid to work out any kinks.

And that, my friend, is just the tip of the iceberg for seeing how the sausage is made. The Olympics is typically when networks push the envelope developing and test-driving new technologies, and sometimes we're the guinea pigs! Once we get a briefing on what new tech we're playing with, then the real fun begins...


-13C in PyeongChang -- off to a good start.

NEXT: Read Part Two!


Posted by: Kylee Peña on Jan 29, 2018 at 5:51:43 am Winter Olympics, post production, editing, mike api

Being a Camera Operator on a Documentary at Sundance: DP Barbie Leung on 'Half the Picture'

Before the lush celebrity gift suites, the sold-out Q&A sessions, and the long lines of frozen but eager cinephiles trying to grab the hottest ticket in Park City, a movie was made -- and it was hard work. And behind the producers and directors and actors who led the charge, a "below-the-line" crew of anywhere from tens to hundreds of craftspeople worked to bring filmmakers' visions to life. They're the post production engineers, the editors, the camera operators, or the composers whose names are in the credits but not the numerous story pitches to Sundance press outlets like the COW. Union or non-union, aspiring or veteran, these individuals spent weeks of their life behind the scenes dedicated to telling a story. And in my 2018 COW Sundance Film Festival coverage, I'm telling their stories.

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New York based cinematographer Barbie Leung is highly relatable, especially among film nerds in Park City this week: she describes herself as "the high school kid that rented movies from the library when I was 16 when other people were outside." After her film theory education at University of Rochester, she spent time exploring where to go next. Her first gig in the industry was on a student thesis feature film (where she went in to be a PA and ended up script supervisor) and then hopped from indie to indie, learning all the roles, putting the pieces of how a film production works together, and gaining the confidence she needed to pursue her chosen path.

That path ended up being camera operator, where she worked as an assistant camera operator (AC) and enjoyed being "close to the action" before realizing she needed to make a choice about how to proceed. Frustrated by the slow upward movement in the traditional union path, she decided to forego that ladder and pursue being a cinematographer on the vast number of independent films in the city.


Barbie camera operating on feature documentary Half the Picture (photo credit: Tommy Ka)

"I couldn't really see [progressing from the bottom of the camera department traditionally] happening, especially for women, people of color, or a woman who is a person of color. I definitely didn't have the vocabulary we have now, and that I have from being older. At the time in my twenties, I was confused and I couldn't see the path forward. I couldn't see anybody that I felt was similar to my background that did that."

Finding the hunger to want to shoot, Barbie moved forward to market herself strictly as a cinematographer and camera operator, passing on jobs for roles she didn't want to pursue -- a choice that was admittedly difficult but ultimately worthwhile, if the long list of credits across narrative, commercial, new media, and branded content on her CV is any indication.

This week, she's at the Sundance Film Festival as part of the camera crew (specifically, camera operator) for Half the Picture, directed by Amy Adrion with Yamit Shimonovitz and Soraya Sélène as co-directors of photography. The documentary explores the lack of female directors working in Hollywood and the EEOC investigation into discriminatory hiring practices that have contributed to this issue. The film makes its world premiere at the festival this week.

I met up with Barbie at the packed (and warm) Atticus Tea House on Main Street this weekend to talk about her experiences as a camera operator and cinematographer. After our interview, she handed me her card. It's simple and no-nonsense: vital information on one side, and frames of her (beautiful) work on the other. She's fully done being reluctant about being a woman in a role where over 95% of workers are men. "This is me, this is what I do. Would you like this? Then call me."

Creative COW: How did you get involved on Half the Picture and what do you hope people take away from watching it?

Barbie Leung: Half the Picture is a feature documentary and it explores women directors in Hollywood. There have been a lot of studies and statistics crossing over into mainstream media, but there hasn't been a high profile documentary where you can really see women film directors with major studio pictures or successful indies speak about it. I was a camera operator on it because of all the experience I had with being in different indie film productions in New York. I had a really long time friend who joined the union and was off doing her union thing, and didn't have time to do this and passed it to me. She was in LA and gave the LA crew my name because they were shooting in NY and didn't have any connections.

The film is really unique in that you can see the directors speaking in their native environments, and that's a driving concept of Amy's film. We're filming angles where you see Catherine Hardwicke or Kimberly Peirce sitting under flags and boom poles and bounce boards while talking about this subject. It feels like she's in her element. We say it all the time in cinematography, and amongst women cinematographers: you have to see us to believe it, that a woman does this role. It makes it a given. It's a subtle but very powerful thing to have that image.

I haven't seen the whole film yet so I'm only privy to what people said on said during my segments as camera operator. But I hope people can just know there are this many women working. That they can be consciously aware of it. Like maybe somebody liked Boys Don't Cry, but did they remember Kimberly Pierce directed it? To be able to notice that, maybe people are just now realizing there are great women directors. I feel like the minutiae of what we're discussing, it's really good too. But the overarching element is that -- being aware of how many women directors there are.

You were a camera operator on this film, and you work as a both camera operator and cinematographer professionally. I think a lot of people aren't sure of the difference between those roles since sometimes the cinematographer operates a camera and sometimes they don't. But of course the cinematographer is in charge of everything in the frame, and the camera operator is in charge of operating the camera to accommodate the cinematographer's vision. How are these roles separate for you -- or not -- and how do you prefer to work?

A cinematographer definitely doesn't have to operate their camera. But a lot of cinematographers feel that it's really important to have that direct connection with the camera. It depends on the type of work they're doing, too. If they're doing indie work and there's a lot of handheld, you would want to feel the camera as an extension of your body. Or you're moving and connecting emotionally to what's happening, or kinetically to the action, you might want to be able to literally have a more direct connection between your brain and the craft of it.

A lot of it has to do with scope. I think most cinematographers have that preference, and when the scope is small enough, that's the best way to achieve the look you want. But sometimes when the scope of the film is too big, that's when it's helpful to have camera operators to help you execute different moves. As your productions are getting bigger, one person should be controlling each aspect of the task -- especially if it's smooth motion and you have a lot of gear. It's all about rehearsing it and getting into that grove.

It just depends on personal preference, the needs of the project, and how you like to work. I really do like operating as well when it's my project. I also like being a camera operator on other peoples' projects because you're communicating with another cinematographer and watching them work, and you can get into their head a little bit about how they like to frame things or how they want to feel out something. I think there's pros and cons and everyone will have a different process.


Still frame of Lena Dunham from one of Barbie's shots in Half the Picture. (Co-DPs Yamit Shimonovitz & Soraya Sélène)

What's your working relationship like with directors as a cinematographer?

I think especially where I am in my career, I work with a lot of first and second time directors who are still developing. They either don't yet know how to communicate with the cinematographer, or they're figuring it out because they've only worked with one other cinematographer and they don't really know these essentials. Mostly I approach it as: it's their vision and I'm here to help them. That means different things to different directors.

One way is actually have a drink or evening with a director. Go watch movies together, trade references that may or may not be related directly to the project that you're working, really trying to understand their sensibility and where they're coming from. Is it a writer/director -- especially in indie film that's often the case. Did they come from a theater background? Trying to figure out the most comfortable way to fit together, because ideally it's always a collaboration.

Those are really the kind of projects I seek out. Ones where I can be a collaborator. Some people might think 'oh it's a hired hand, you just show up and you shoot the thing I want'. But that 'want' is not just you telling me something, I need to understand where you're coming from before your words can make sense. You need that shorthand on set when you say something and we don't have time for those discussions. It's all about having those discussions. Understanding that person comes from, their background. Literally how did they grow up, what are their concerns and world view and how does that intersect with their art?

You also have to figure out how comfortable they are with the technology. Some people will need me to fill in the gap of how to achieve a camera movement. Does that camera movement fit into their budget? Is there a better way to do it? Easier ways to do it? All those things. And if the director is really comfortable with lens choices and they already know what they want, then we already know how to communicate. They can just tell me they want this on an 85mm. Whereas another director might say 'I imagine this to be wider or would have shallow depth of field,' some people communicate in those terms.

And it'll go all the way to an extreme where someone might just have a feeling, and I can really make my own decision and show it to them. They need to trust that I'm trying to fulfill their vision and not trying to add something that doesn't fit into it.

As a cinematographer, you're seen on set and behind the camera. But what other prep work and continued education is involved off the set?

Continued education is funny because it's always research. You're always having to keep up with what's happening with technology changing, tastes changing, and the interaction of that -- how technology will shape the tastes that we have. It's really important to have prep time for that. That can be in a narrative project or branded content. I just shot something for Redbull TV that was a much more experimental project. For things like that, it's really important to have prep time.

In the case of a film, after that mind-meld with your director and understanding their vision and that important preparation, we get into nuts and bolts. I should be on the tech scouts so I can tell someone if it's not ideal for the script they have. Breaking down the script, finding the elements, that's a really important thing. Words are free -- someone can write anything. But does it match their budget? Taking that, telling them the limitations of the location, making equipment lists, fitting it all into the budget, especially in indies. Budget is one of the most important things for them. I want them to get the most bang out of their buck for the producers.

Working with the assistant director (AD) to figure out how much time is necessary to shoot. A good AD will already have an estimate, but maybe there's some element to the shot that me and the director and gaffer and key grip have found a way to solve. It might need extra time, or it's a lot faster, so working with the AD to figure out a schedule and crewing up is important. I really like a good working crew, people who are good together and appropriate for the project. THere's a lot of work there too.

It's subtle and ongoing, every minute until you step on set. Once you get on set, it's just executing things. If you have good lighting diagrams, your key grip and gaffer can just look at it and have a shorthand. It's all quite nerdy, there's a lot of plotting and charts and Excel. And once you get on set, the part that looks cool is really just execution of weeks or months that you put into the prep. You want as much prep as you can, because once you get on set you're going to have problems. We all know this. Everything will go wrong. But if you have you plan, now you can be flexible because you know your ideal and you can react.


Behind the scenes working as director of photography on upcoming narrative feature Side Piece, directed by E.A. Moss (photo credit: David Bluvband)

What advice do you have for people who want to become a cinematographer, especially for those who are underrepresented on set?

If you're thinking of ultimately becoming a cinematographer, you need to figure out the way you want to get there. Think about if you want to come up in camera or grip and electric (G&E). To speak frankly, there are many more women in the camera department than G&E. It's something people are just more accepting of because of the perception that women are organized. And that's what being an assistant camera (AC) is, you're organizer and people like having you on set. Or do you want to go the G&E route, where there are fewer women? Many cinematographers historically have come up through G&E. That's a really big decision. It's very complex, and I'm always happy to talk to anyone who wants to talk to me about that.

Once you decide which way you want to come up, you also have to decide if you want to go union. If you're going union, there are a lot of steps to that. You need to be realistic about how much time you're willing to wait before you can become a cinematographer because if you're working full time and in the union, you actually are left with very little energy to do projects of your own. I was talking to another cinematographer today at the ASC party andt hey've seen a lot of their friends go into the union [and take a long time to work their way up] because it pays well, you have health insurance, all those things. If you value those things [over timing], maybe that's the way you go -- it's a lifestyle choice. The earlier you decide on that, I think it's better.

The biggest thing after that is you have to shoot as early as you can. Don't think you need to stay in a certain position for a certain amount of time. It really depends on your comfort level of stepping outside your comfort zone. You have to scare yourself. I think Rachel Morrison said it recently and in better words that with each project you work on, it needs to be an incremental jump. You're never going to get anywhere if you're not challenging yourself and scaring yourself with each project. You have to be bold. That way you won't have regrets. At least, that's my approach: try to improve in a large leap with each project.

Some people say shoot anything. That could be one approach, but one thing I've learned is that it needs to be quality. It's not the amount you shoot, you have to shoot smartly. The people you collaborate with, try to collaborate with people who are better than you. In a game of pool or billiards, you want to play with players who are better than you. Don't just play with people you're comfortable with. Find people that scare you a little bit and work with them.


Barbie at Atticus Tea House in Park City, Utah



Sundance Impressions: Three Movies on Sunday

Yeah, it’s Tuesday. I lost a day to travel, as I returned to Los Angeles yesterday in a sold out flight filled with exhausted looking film fans and the occasional indie actor. Our scarves and new boots have seen winter, and we’re through with it.

On Sunday I took full advantage of the festival, attending three world premieres in three different places across Park City. Thankfully the relentless snow had stopped and the shuttle service was back on track, allowing me to actually make it to all these films.

I Think We’re Alone Now, directed by Reed Morano, was first up for me. The post-apocalyptic story was just the kind of movie I really enjoy — which can make it hard to review objectively. But I ain’t never said this blog was objective, so screw it: I was into this film. It tells the story of a man left behind after some kind of apocalyptic event has killed everyone where they sat, stood, or drove. And this man is perfectly okay with that because he wasn’t a people person anyway. The best and richest parts of the film are in his routines and the textures they carry on screen. He’s perfectly content with his solitary life in upstate New York. Then one day, a woman shows up — and she doesn’t want to leave.


The cast and crew of I Think We're Alone Now

The conflict of companionship and loneliness that follows this is a really interesting look at how we all cope with ourselves and our needs. And I really loved that the story doesn’t bother to explore why the apocalypse happened or how to rebuild society. This character doesn’t care about that. For him, life goes on. Until it doesn’t.

Seeing Reed Morano’s name in the credits as both director and director of photography is also pretty great. Pretty dang great, yep.

Next up was Search, whose editors I interviewed earlier this week. As I described previously, this is a screen movie that takes place on a computer. But not just one computer or screen — multiple screens. If you’ve seen screen movies before, you might have expectations. This isn’t like that. It’s got zooms, pans, edits, dissolves. It just happens that you’re looking at John Cho’s Mac’s desktop. Search is the story of the disappearance of a man’s daughter and his mission to get her back. While that’s anything but a new story, the way this film unfolds makes it feel new.


The cast and crew of Search

I think it was really smart of the filmmakers (director Aneesh Chaganty and his co-writer Sev Ohanian) to use a story that has some basic building blocks an audience will recognize as a jumping off point for exploring it in an entirely different direction. There are stretches of the film where we’re watching Cho break into his daughter’s Gmail or go through her Facebook friends, and it’s surprisingly riveting. The twists and turns feel earned and realistic. It’s a lot of fun, and it uses some of the modern conventions of internet usage in new and interesting ways. I’m curious how people who don’t use the internet all that much will react to it, and how some of the sight gags involved might play upon a second viewing. The performances in the film are especially good — particularly John Cho, who had to act at a GoPro alone for a majority of the film.

And last for the day was Rupert Everett’s directorial debut The Happy Prince which was — yeah I’m gonna say it — anything but happy. The film tells the story of the final years of Oscar Wilde’s life, picking up after he gets out of prison for homosexuality. Everett also wrote the film and stars as Wilde, and he really does disappear into the role (and into his fat suit) to explore a complicated and sad artist’s spiral into depression and many many bad choices. The other films I saw at Sundance felt like they were trying something new and using their indie status to be a little bit different. The Happy Prince felt more like A Regular Movie you’d see nominated for Oscars and stuff.

But that doesn’t take away from how good I think it actually was. The cinematography and direction was fantastic, and the editing choices were great. From start to finish, it felt like the logical progression of a man’s fall from grace and into exile in France. Realistically it probably won’t stick with me, but I enjoyed having seen it. To punctuate my Sundance experience with an exploration of how we destroy great artists in their time and only choose to celebrate them properly when it’s far too late was an interesting choice — Wilde was pardoned in 2017.


This wasn't pleasant.

Also, I had to stand in the ticket overflow line for like a half hour in 13 degree weather to see it, so I’m glad it wasn’t terrible.

That was the end of my on-the-ground Sundance experience, and by the end I was nearly crawling to my airport terminal. Had I spent the entire week at the festival I wouldn’t be nearly spent because I would have paced myself a little bit more. Packing the full experience into 4 days required a little more of me. But let’s be real: I am aging rapidly and walking 5 miles a day in the snow is not something I am capable of sustaining.



Although I have departed Park City, my Sundance coverage continues this week with a few more interviews from your favorite below the line crew. Going and experiencing the festival first-hand was a really special experience. Sharing that with some old friends and new acquaintances was even more special. It’s been a long time since I stayed up until 3AM with friends talking about life and movies. I don’t share a breakfast table with like-minded people arguing about Avid very often. I never see three movies in a single day unless I’m laying on a couch in my pajamas. I’m thankful for the experience of Sundance and the people I met while I was there.

(I’m also thankful it’s 65 degrees in Los Angeles. But I am also under blankets.)




Posted by: Kylee Peña on Jan 23, 2018 at 6:17:36 pm Sundance film festival, post production, film, television

Sundance Impressions: Snow and “The Sentence”

The threat (or promise, depending on your outlook) of snow delivered today in full force. So much so that I was taken off guard and missed an early screening due to basically being buried in a snow drift. I was born and raised in the midwest, and I started driving at age 16 with a very light front wheel drive vehicle in the dead of winter in a rural area. But it turns out once you live in LA for like, a minute, your natural instincts begin to disappear and you struggle to remain upright.

I was really proud of my snow boots though. Obviously I am not A Winter Sports Person (TM) so I didn’t own boots until last week. Breaking them in here was a risk and it seems to have paid off.


The Egyptian Theater

I read a few articles about preparing to come to Park City, but none of them really prepared me for the extent to which I would be both hot and cold simultaneously all the time. I am thankful I packed a lens cloth in my winter coat pocket to deal with the fogged lenses at every turn. But despite all my whining, it really is nice to play in some snow and be among the film people in such a nice city. (Everyone who lives here and volunteers at the festival is so.nice.)


Main Street

I made a detour off Main Street to spend some time having brunch with Endcrawl at midday. Their service basically makes making end credits easy. I’m a really big fan of the entire idea of Endcrawl, in part because I’ve made credits that suck, and in part because it’s so accessible that indie filmmakers can and do use it. A third of the features in Sundance this year used Endcrawl, which is bananas. I talked to John “Pliny” Eremic briefly over mimosas and scones and asked him: why are end credits so damn hard?

He told me this: "You’re juggling hundreds, sometimes thousands of names. There are a lot of politics involved. There are endless revisions. There’s behind the scenes wrangling with who’s in and who’s out and fixing all the typos and all that. The process for that used to be email chains and it was very 1997. You only want to scroll at certain speeds that don’t jitter, judder, stutter, shimmer, shake — whatever you want to call it. That makes the runtime difficult.”

Yeah, that was also my experience.


Cocktails with Endcrawl

Later on, after tea with a DP (sharing that conversation soon) and coffee with an editor (that one too), I was thinking about the thing I realized makes Sundance really special for me. It isn’t just going to see a lot of movies, or going to see new movies. It’s experiencing movies alongside the filmmakers that made them, and celebrating that along with them. If you’ve ever made a short or a feature or any other expression of creativity and debuted it to a crowd of strangers in a theater or room of any size, you know the nervous excitement just before your art is unveiled. At Sundance, that feeling is on steroids.


Atticus Tea House



Which leads me to The Sentence.

The film is drawn from hundreds of hours of footage shot by director Rudy Valdez, as he tells the story of the incarceration of his sister Cindy and the aftermath of her 15 year sentence for conspiracy charges related to drug crimes her boyfriend committed before he was murdered. Cindy wasn’t involved in drugs. She made some poor decisions with who she spent time with, and she didn’t disclose her boyfriend’s crimes to the police at any point. But it’s clear in the film she is nothing but a kind person who wants to take care of her family.

And originally, the state agreed and threw out the case. But six years later, just six months before the statute of limitations would run out, she was convicted of her boyfriend’s crimes and given the mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years just months after giving birth to her third daughter. From that point, Rudy copes with his sister’s situation, and turns from bystander to director to activist behind the camera over the course of nine years of her story.

From the opening scene of the film, the stakes are made clear: Cindy is taken from her family and all the little moments a young mom gets with her babies — first days of school, funny little games, silly faces, fighting — is taken away from her. The through line of the film is in the heart of her daughters on screen, being interviewed by Rudy as they play in their rooms or sit on their beds. Children are honest, and their perspectives are gut-wrenching. Even more gut-wrenchingly, we’re placed in the shoes of Cindy as we watch the three girls grow up on camera. The oldest, Autumn, begins the film is an adorable 5 year old. By the end she’s a teenager, and the visual of her growing face and the subtle deepening of her voice is heartbreaking.

Rudy describes himself as feeling he’s taken the “coward’s way out”, which I think is a sentiment to which a lot of us who cope with difficulties by documenting our lives in full can relate. But Rudy is the driving force of trying to change his sister’s fate, staying the course as a family is ripped apart by unchanging mandatory minimums and “the girlfriend problem”. And we learn Cindy is far from alone in her struggles as a mom ripped away from a healthy, productive family.

The film is intimate, often filling the frame with the subjects’ faces. Personal moments play out but never exploit. Everyone is just so earnest, trying their best. And Cindy never stops trying to keep the family together, consoling her siblings and parents and children at times over the phone, reminding them that she’s okay, interrupted periodically by an automated voice interjecting that the call is coming from a federal prison.

It was challenging and well-edited, an important story that has real world implications not just for Cindy and her family, but for many thousands of other families. It was a personal film, and I was glad to share the experience of seeing it on the big screen with Rudy.

But then the film ended, and the entire family I had just lived 9 years with over 90 minutes emerged from the audience and stood in front of us.


The subjects and crew from The Sentence

Seeing a narrative feature followed by a Q&A with the cast and crew is a special experience. Experiencing such a vulnerable story with the subjects themselves is on another level.

And that’s really what solidified in my head what makes Sundance worth doing as a film lover.


Posted by: Kylee Peña on Jan 21, 2018 at 5:08:26 am Sundance, post production

Bringing Cinema to a Computer Screen: Cutting "Search" for Sundance

Before the lush celebrity gift suites, the sold-out Q&A sessions, and the long lines of frozen but eager cinephiles trying to grab the hottest ticket in Park City, a movie was made -- and it was hard work. And behind the producers and directors and actors who led the charge, a "below-the-line" crew of anywhere from tens to hundreds of craftspeople worked to bring filmmakers' visions to life. They're the post production engineers, the editors, the camera operators, or the composers whose names are in the credits but not the numerous story pitches to Sundance press outlets like the COW. Union or non-union, aspiring or veteran, these individuals spent weeks of their life behind the scenes dedicated to telling a story. And in my 2018 COW Sundance Film Festival coverage, I'm telling their stories.

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On the feature film Search which made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival this week, editors Nick Johnson and Will Merrick were tasked with some hefty new challenges: a film shot almost entirely on GoPro (with a little dash of iPhone and MiniDV) requiring thousands of layers of continuously rasterizing vector files -- which takes place entirely on a screen. Oh, and also Sundance deadlines.


John Cho in Search. Courtesy Sundance Institute.

Thriller Search, directed by Aneesh Chaganty and co-written by Aneesh and producer Sev Ohanian, isn't the first "screen" film -- that is, the first film to take place entirely on a computer screen. But Sev explains it is the first to bring a cinematic approach to the limited "screen" genre. "At first we were kind of hesitant about taking on this project because there was a skepticism we had about not wanting to make a movie that would feel or look like a gimmick. What we think makes Search a special movie, considering we have this crazy visual style on computer screens, is that we put the characters first. And even down to our opening sequence, which encapsulates 12 years of a family entirely from their home computer, the idea was to give audiences a cinematic, visceral experience no different than any kind of movie they'd see -- except that it happens on computer screens."


Aneesh Chaganty

Nick and Will's job? Will says it was "to figure out the execution of that, to make a movie told through computer screens that feels cinematic and not just what you feel when you sit at your computer screen."

Nick added that "as far as we know, I think we're one of the first if not the first "screen" films to cut and punch in [to a shot] which seems like such an obvious idea. Because we were doing that, it created all sorts of really challenging technical situations. That said, we think it creates a uniquely cinematic experience you haven't seen in any other "screen" movie."

This cinematic experience is difficult to fully explain, but once you see it you get it: they cut a movie on a screen just like a movie shot any other way. Close-ups, medium shots, and transitions, the full gamut of traditional storytelling language -- all with shots happening on some kind of screen. This seems obvious in retrospect, but trying to wrap your head around how it would actually look was difficult, even for the film's performers.

During the Q&A session following the Sundance world premiere, actor Debra Messing discussed how it was difficult to understand the script at first, with it being full of stage directions for a mouse and when or where someone would click a button. But then she saw Chaganty's Seeds and understood immediately that something new and special was taking place. This kind of movie needed the right team.

And the USC-driven team has reaped the rewards at the festival. Aside from the Sundance Audience Award for "Best of Next!" and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Feature Film Prize (awarded to a film featuring science or technology as a major theme), producer Ohanian picked up the Sundance Institute and Amazon Studios Narrative Feature Film Producer Award, honoring his role as a bold creative producer in an independent space. Oh, and the film has also landed one of the biggest deals at the festival: it sold for $5 million to Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions.


Nick Johnson

And the creative and technical processes were not without major challenges. From figuring out the visual language of the film to sorting out numerous render issues (and diving deep into tech support to help support their need to push the technical limits of Creative Cloud software), Nick and Will had their work cut out for them. And it was to be expected: Will, Nick, Sev and director Aneesh all met during their time in film school at USC in Los Angeles.


Will Merrick

It was at USC that Aneesh established himself as an ambitious filmmaker, directing the wildly popular shot-entirely-on-Google-Glass tear-jerker Seeds, which Sev produced. Sev produced numerous indies, including Fruitvale Station. Sev and Aneesh became writing partners and tapped classmates Will and Nick, who had been working on music videos and features, to cut Search. Sev added that "when the movie was coming together, we knew it was going to be a very different film experience than what we had ever done or most people had done. We knew we needed to put together the best team of editors. This movie could not have been possible had we not had these two guys who not only had to edit this movie, but learn and teach themselves how to do this while they were doing it under insane deadlines."


Sev Ohanian

Creative COW: When you were working out the story in the writing process and pre-production, how much planning about the constraints of the screen medium did you put into post production? Did you plan it tightly, or leave room to figure it out in the edit?

Sev Ohanian: We made the decision very early on to not make this film be an experiment. We wanted to avoid a situation where we would write and shoot the movie, and then figure it out in post. Our intention was that we would make a super-plan of what this film was going to look like before we ever shot anything. We wrote a really tight mystery thriller first. Seven weeks before we started principal photography with our actors John Cho and Debra Messing, we came up with this plan to start editing the movie first. So seven weeks before principal photography, Will and Nick were already editing an animatic of the movie.

The idea was that by the time we really started shooting the movie, we had screened that animatic version to our crew, and people had an idea of what we were trying to achieve. And most importantly, we could make sure the movie had artistic value. That was the idea of us planning and trying to avoid learning the movie in the edit -- so we could focus on the creative parts of the movie in post, not just the technical.

Nick Johnson: And the preparation even went earlier than seven weeks. When we first met with Aneesh, he described these meetings as "rehearsals with the editors". The script was already really incredible, and an unusual piece to read because of the format. Will and I went scene by scene with Aneesh just talking through mouse movements, how we would cover certain things, and what the acts were going to look like, so that by the time we started we could hit the ground running to make sure the animatic was done and ready to go before production started.


Aneesh, Will and Nick working together. Courtesy Sundance Institute

It's an interesting approach that you almost edited the movie backwards.

Nick: It was almost like making an animated film.

Was that difficult to wrap your minds around, editorially?

Will Merrick: Something that was weird was as an editor was that you never really start with a blank slate. On the first day when we came in, we had an empty timeline and had to start screen capping software. Nothing that made the final film was screencapped -- we animated all that later. But for [the animatic] we just sat down and started capturing Facebook, FaceTime, and Aneesh started taking pictures of his face. It really felt like we built it up from nothing.

Nick: Coming into it there weren't that many movies we were trying to emulate. There wasn't an existing template for what we were trying to do. Even in the "rehearsals" we had with Aneesh, I remember trying to understand like, okay what's the language? What are the rules of editing this? If we're in a close-up, can we cut to another close-up? Is it going to be disorienting? Because you're editing on a three dimensional plane. And it's not as obvious as you'd think. I remember early on thinking there'd be certain rules we needed to put in place because the audience would be disoriented. We ended up finding out this wasn't necessarily true.

Will: We broke pretty much every rule eventually.

Do you feel that people weren't as disoriented as you thought because they're so used to looking at screens and interacting with them?

Nick: I do think that's partly why. I also think it's because, at the end, we were just using traditional cinematic language. Audiences are used to those sorts of shots, that sort of editing. I think the thing we needed to get over was "so what, it takes place on a computer screen." We still had to treat it as a movie. We could have dissolves, we could cut from close-up to close-up. People are used to seeing that.


Nick and Will working together in Premiere Pro. Courtesy Sundance Institute.

Can you tell me about your technical workflow and how you worked together on that?

Will: We began by creating the animatic, but because we made it all layer by layer in Premiere, when the live action came in we would sit in the office and edit it into the animatic. That became our first editor assembly. From there we worked in Adobe Premiere -- we would build everything in a wide shot and put that in a nest, and we'd put the temp camera moves outside the nest. It made timing very hard. Every time we changed timing we'd have to go into the nest and move everything, come out of the nest, change the camera moves.

Nick: We had a transcode process to ProRes [for the live action footage] and kept all that [instead of conforming to camera originals]. [Search] was almost all shot on GoPros, so it's all H.264. We had an incredible assistant editor -- who posts a lot on Creative COW by the way, Angelo Lorenzo -- who did the transcoding.

Will: After all that was done, which was tedious and painstaking, we picture locked and sent the entire movie to After Effects where we replaced almost everything in the film with Illustrator files we made partially working with a VFX company called Neon Robotic, so everything would be infinitely scalable and we could make our real camera moves and punch ins.

Nick: The big thing we quickly learned, and we knew to some degree going in, was that we weren't able to screen record anything because we would need 16K monitors in order to capture that stuff. So almost everything you see in the movie, with the exception of the live action, has been drawn in Illustrator and animated in After Effects. We had to recreate, line for line, Facebook, iMessage, Finder windows -- and every click state would have "states" for when the mouse would click. And then we motion captured the mouse in everything. Everything you see is animated in After Effects.

Will: For color, we had all our live action footage within elements in the screen, sometimes more than one in a shot. And you can't color the screen itself because you'd mess up the white and black levels. We did color in After Effects, and we found this great colorist Zach Medow who does temp color on a lot of big movies. And because he does that, he knew how to work in After Effects, so he went in and used the Color Finesse Tool on all the live action element.

Nick: Which has to be one of the most tedious things a colorist could ever do.

Will: He had no real time playback whatsoever. He had to watch a reference and go back to color. Once he was done with that, we made an export from After Effects and put that through Da Vinci Resolve to put some extra vignetting and blurring in, and a little bit of contrast on the final film itself.

Nick: We tried for a long time to figure out how to get just the live action footage into Resolve. The reason we didn't is because we had so many layers, and layers upon layers. And sometimes the Finder window would cross in front of a piece of live action, and sometimes it would go behind. There was no good way to isolate that and then slot it back in. The online process would have been really difficult. A lot of this movie and its technical processes, I remember thinking "there's gotta be a better way to do this." But we exhausted every possibility and eventually it was like I guess we'll do it this way.


Behind the scenes, John Cho in Search. Courtesy Sundance Institute.

How did the constraint of the "screen" play to your advantage as editors?

Nick: For one, the most obvious thing is that unlike a normal movie where you have to live with how the footage is, we could rearrange anything. It's an animated movie, so if a certain action is taking too long, we could just create a button on a page and have it happen instantly. Cutting a "screen" movie gives you the advantage of making changes.

Will: It's a bit more first-person than a normal movie, which allows me to convey more things like the production design of the character's desktop through deeper character traits that are hard to convey through dialogue.

Nick: That was really fun too. There's a performance aspect to the mouse. You're constantly in the character's head. A lot of the mouse performances, you're performing as the main character. That was really fun, to almost be acting.

Because on the screen you can show the hesitation of the mouse, or something like that?

Nick: Exactly, that was one of the most fun parts of the movie for sure.

This film uses the technology inherent in our daily lives to tell a story. What does it say about the role technology has to play in our lives?

Will: There's a lot of films or like Black Mirror, warning us about technology and I think this film does that but it's also an affirmation about technology. Technology is good AND bad, it shows both sides.

Nick: In creating the movie, our intention was always to be as true to real life as possible. It was always the idea to be as true to our experience interacting n the internet as possible. Whether or not you read into the commentary, you think yeah this feels real and true to my experience. We were always careful to not be too heavy handed on any sort commentary.

You're featured in the "NEXT" section at Sundance, which is described as a set of films "distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to storytelling." Do you have thoughts about where else storytelling is going?

Nick: There are so many possibilities.

Will: Virtual reality is really interesting.

Nick: VR is one of the most exciting things to me. I do think there are some really interesting things you can do with "screen reality" movies too.

Will: I think the Lytro cameras will also change everything, at least about how movies are made. I think you'll start to see in the screen element, as the gimmick is worn out, there will be movies that incorporate screen scenes or moments, like how you see text bubbles popping up now. So if you have a live action movie and one scene is more conveniently told through a computer screen, maybe it'll just be told that way. Who knows where it'll go from there.


Posted by: Kylee Peña on Jan 20, 2018 at 7:59:18 am Sundance, post production, search, next, premiere pro

Sundance Impressions: Main Street, Friends, and Lizzie

Boarding my flight from LA, I knew I was in for an interesting trip when half the people around me were already wearing snow boots and hats. It was a chilly morning by Southern California standards, but my sweaty self was regretting even wearing a long sleeved shirt. (I really enjoy visiting cold places because I can walk outside and be comfortable. But I obviously don’t like living in them.)

Inside my press credentials, I was surprised and pleased to see a number for a hotline the festival created with the Utah Attorney General’s Office to report harassment, sexism, abuse, and discrimination. I hope other event organizers are taking notice (hello, NAB Show) because this is an obvious tool that should have been implemented years ago. It’s been an after-thought for so long, and it’s finally at the forefront.


The insert was inside all festival badges.

Wandering Main Street involved spotting actors I know whose names are on the tip of my tongue, people I worked with on projects in the past, and people I’ll probably work with in the future. And talking a lot about the threat of snow.

Adobe’s “Art of the Edit” panel this afternoon featured three Premiere-using editors discussing their craft and how it has and hasn’t changed. It’s striking to me how the number of self-taught, never-really-got-training editors are beginning to really take hold and outnumber the old guard. This is in large part thanks to accessible software like Premiere and After Effects. I think it won’t be terribly long before we have entire panels of established, experienced editors who don’t have a film-related anecdote. (I also think this is just fine.)


Adobe's panel on the art of the editor.

At the premiere of Lizzie I got my first taste of the Sundance screening experience: the ticket holder line, the sad glances from the waitlist line, and the buzz in the theater as a fresh, new movie begins. Lizzie is a psychological thriller based on the story of Lizzie Borden and the axe murder of the Borden family, directed by Craig William Macneill and edited by Abbi Jutkowitz, starring Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart. Sevigny and Stewart are definitely at their best in the film with great characters and occasionally sharp dialogue, which is quiet, tense, and slow to build. But when it builds, it gets downright scary. It’s not surprising to add that Lizzie is pretty violent, and as I was thinking about my take on the film, I wondered if seeing a woman involved in this level of carnage (in a non-pulpy sense) was unconsciously affecting my opinion. It’s going to take a while before I really have a clear opinion, but I do know this: Lizzie ended up being a challenging and timely depiction of female rage.


The cast and crew of Lizzie in a Q&A after the screening.

Aside from the bustle of Main Street and the thrill of seeing new films, it’s also worth mentioning that just getting away and being around friendly faces — particularly those in our shared condo, which is full of television and film editors — has been appreciated and necessary. Three of us took a break from the Sundance scene this evening and made dinner at home, sharing olives and tapenade and red wine next to the fire. I love the theme of the sharing of stories at the festival, especially when they’re our own.

Follow me on Twitter and Instagram for more updates.


Dinner with friends.



Posted by: Kylee Peña on Jan 20, 2018 at 7:49:44 am Sundance film festival, post production, film, television

Being a Post PA on a Sundance Indie Feature

Before the lush celebrity gift suites, the sold-out Q&A sessions, and the long lines of frozen but eager cinephiles trying to grab the hottest ticket in Park City, a movie was made -- and it was hard work. And behind the producers and directors and actors who led the charge, a "below-the-line" crew of anywhere from tens to hundreds of craftspeople worked to bring filmmakers' visions to life. They're the post production engineers, the editors, the camera operators, or the composers whose names are in the credits but not the numerous story pitches to Sundance press outlets like the COW. Union or non-union, aspiring or veteran, these individuals spent weeks of their life behind the scenes dedicated to telling a story. And in my 2018 COW Sundance Film Festival coverage, I'm telling their stories.

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A lot of assumptions are made about post production assistants, or "post PAs": that they simply fetch lunch, sort M&Ms by color, or other "small" tasks dolled out at the whim of a producer. But Briana Kay Stodden's career so far has been anything but minor. After jumping from rural Illinois to New York City, she has served as post PA on some of the most talked-about shows and movies of 2017 and 2018: Oscar contenderMudbound, Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It, Golden Globe winner The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel -- and now making its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this week, Private Life directed by Tamara Jenkins.

Briana graduated from Southern Illinois University with a BA in Cinema Studies and spent her college years working in news. Upon graduation, her partner Eric was offered a job at Light Iron in New York. They moved together, without so much as a quick visit to NYC before the relocation. "There was a lot of uncertainty in those first few months and being unemployed was scary for me but I had a few projects I did from home that kept my bills paid."


Briana Kay Stodden

Those side hustles involved producing an educational video series about working in post for the City of New York and mixing short films from her home studio: key aspects of her success as a PA in the competitive post production industry of New York. "I'm so grateful for my time as a Post PA because it helped me understand all of the different jobs available in post. Because of this, I was able to learn about myself and what I like and don't like. When I started my first Post PA job I was CERTAIN I wanted to be an editor -- but through my side projects, I discovered post sound is what really makes me want to get out bed in the morning.

Briana is moving up and out of the post PA role and into a 2nd assistant editor role at a documentary company where she hopes to return to her journalistic roots. But before she goes, she's got some great insight about the role of the post PA: how to succeed, how to be a good person, and how to think of yourself as anything but small.


Private Life, Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Creative COW: How did you get into your first post PA job?

Briana Stodden: When I moved to New York, all of my previous work experience had been in news but I was eager to work in film. Finding a job here was extremely difficult at first because I was applying for post jobs but I didn't understand why I wasn't getting any callbacks. I had almost completely given up on trying to get a job in post and I started to look for jobs in news. 

Then one night, Eric came home and said an editor at Light Iron was needing some help organizing her edit room. I thought it would be a fun project to get me out of the apartment which was still full of unpacked boxes. Plus, I needed to get away from an inbox that continued to taunt me with no job offers. Little did I know, the editor turned out to be the amazing Susan E. Morse and what started out as a couple of weeks worth of helping her to set up her edit room turned in to my first official Post PA job. 

How do you continue to find jobs?

All of my Post PA jobs since have come by recommendations from assistant editors or post supervisors that I have worked with on various films. At first, I didn't know many people in the post industry but going to post gatherings such as those hosted by the Blue Collar Post Collective (BCPC) really helped me make friends and learn more about how the industry works. Some days, I still can't believe that this small-town Midwesterner has worked on shows like, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel with director Amy Sherman-Palladino or Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It.

However, working as a Post PA on Private Life was one of the most fun and educational environments I've experienced in the industry thus far. I had already worked with the editor Brian A. Kates on the pilot for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel so I had an idea of his workflow.

However, what I really enjoyed observing were the interactions between him and the director Tamara Jenkins. He also edited her previous film The Savages so from day one of watching them work, I was seeing two old friends collaborate to tell a beautiful story and it was everything you imagine filmmaking should be. No matter how difficult or challenging the workday might have become, it was always a good day because I was working with good and kind people and that is what really matters. 


Director Tamara Jenkins, Courtesy of Sundance Institute

What's a typical day for a post PA like? How can someone shine as a great PA?

It seems a lot of people think Post PAs just order lunch -- and on some days I admit ordering the lunch was so time-consuming it seemed that was all I got done that day. However, the Post PA's job is much more than that if you are willing to learn and do the work. 

If you get the chance to start a Post PA job while the film is still in production, you might get to help the assistant editor set up the editing room. I've found it really helps to get to know the post facility staff in the building where you work so can reach out to them when you have questions. I also like to walk around the neighborhood and learn where some great lunch, coffee, and drugstore options are so I can suggest them when they are needed. And I will already have some takeout menus collected. 

Additionally, if your assistant editor requires you to fill out the post crew's time cards or summarize the petty cash expenses throughout the job, it helps to get to know the production's accounting department. I've learned every film does things a little differently, so you can't assume that the paperwork procedures from one job to the next will be the same. The accountants love it when you ask questions early on and avoid simple mistakes later. (You should also show that you appreciate them by writing legibly on all paperwork and by bringing them donuts.) 

While the film is still shooting there is a lot of paperwork that has to be organized such as camera reports, editor's logs, and lined script pages. Every editor and assistant editor will have a different way of doing things so it's important to ask questions and revise your workflow as they require. 

During the director's cut, things start to slow down a little, but this is a great time to observe and learn from your assistant editor if they are able to show you some of their workflow. However, be respectful of their time and make sure you aren't distracting them while they are providing support for the editor or the director. 

Between paperwork, running errands, or ordering lunch, I found it was a good time to practice tutorials online or read up on developments in the industry. It's easy to forget sometimes but these film jobs usually only last about 6-8 months, and as a Post PA you have access to incredibly smart and talented people. Depending on the editing room setup, you might only get small windows of opportunity to ask questions or interact with the editor, assistant editor, or the director, so you want to be knowledgeable and prepared to take advantage of those moments. 

For example, I like to make lists of questions to ask should I get the chance. Those questions could be about something technical or something like, "On this film so far, what edit are you most proud of?" These kinds of questions open up a dialogue, and you will learn more from the stories around the lunch table than you ever will from surfing your Facebook or watching YouTube videos, so always be ready. You might not get all of your questions answered and that is okay, just stay engaged.

Are there any odd tasks you've had to do as a PA?

Every job is unique and every post crew has different needs. It's important to find joy in any task even if it seems small and unimportant. Overall, the Post PA is there to help keep the editing room running smoothly and do whatever is needed to keep the editor, director, and the AE focusing on the film's creation. 

This could mean running to the store for cold medicine, special ordering Red Vines to make the director feel more at home, or assisting the post supervisor. Sometimes this extra effort seems thankless, but it will be noticed by the people who are watching and those are often the people who will ask you to do more work with them in the future. 

Did any of these out of the ordinary tasks come into play during Private Life?

I'm really proud of my work on Private Life but I felt especially useful to the director during one of the film's early screenings. Before the film was locked, Tamara expressed how helpful it would be if we could record the laughter in the theater during the screening to know if certain moments in the film were getting the reactions that she had intended. Thanks to my interest in sound mixing and to my previous work on personal film projects, I had my own field recording kit. Not only was I able to record the laughter from the screening, but I also captured the Q&A afterward and she was able to reference it as she finished the film.

What kind of challenges have you had to overcome as a PA?

An interesting challenge I had to overcome as a PA was learning how to read the room. Every job is different, and when tensions are high and deadlines are approaching it's hard to know how you can be useful. Your assistant editor or post supervisor can be your best allies during these moments, and it is best to ask what is expected of you if you are not sure. It might be the most helpful thing to just stand back, observe, and be ready when you are called upon.

What do you think are some of the most important assets a PA has?

In my opinion, being organized, dependable, and enthusiastic about your work are requirements for all jobs. But the most important asset for a PA is a great personality. In post, you have to work in small, cluttered offices for several hours a day. It's important for the editing room atmosphere to stay positive and kind. 

You and everyone around you are working hard, and sometimes you may want to vent your frustrations but resist that feeling if you can. Remember that talking negatively about someone might feel like friendship and trust-building, but you can't make a real connection that way. Your number one goal as a PA should be to leave a lasting, positive, and trustworthy impression on your co-workers. Besides, they will be the ones you run in to at all the post holiday gatherings.

What's some advice you have for people who are maybe about to get their first post PA gig?

Don't give up. When I go to post gatherings like the BCPC meet-ups, I often meet people who were just like me and trying desperately to get a job in the editing room but can't seem to get their foot in the door. 

What helped me finally break through this barrier was an overhaul on my résumé. When I got out of college I had what I thought was a perfect résumé: organized, easy to read, and full of all the editing related jobs that I had done. 

However, a wonderful AE took the time to show me ways to improve my résumé and showcase the duties specific to what a Post PA is required to do. It's a good idea to highlight your future career goals in a cover letter, but the people who are doing the hiring want to know that YOU know what your role is and that you will be focused on supporting the editing room without doing any actual editing. And don't worry, you will get your moment to shine and showcase your other skills after the job has started.  


Briana's home workspace.

What is the path upward in post production for a PA, and how can other people in the cutting room help PAs with that ascension?

Two words... Side. Hustle. The post industry is a little broken right now in that there aren't very many opportunities in the editing room for Post PAs to get actual editing experience which is needed to further their careers. All of my actual editing, AE, and audio experience have come from small non-union jobs that I've picked up in addition to working as a Post PA. These opportunities have come from other AEs with whom I've expressed my desire to learn, and they have graciously let me help out on their side hustles and gigs. While you are building your reputation and skills, focus on what you can do for other people who have more experience. Don't come to them with an attitude of "What can you teach me?" but rather "How can I help you?" This will make all the difference.

Two more words... Speak. Up. On Private Life we were all at lunch one day and the director asked me what my career goals were. I admitted that I was grateful for what I had learned working in edit rooms, but I have discovered I am more interested in post sound. She and Brian (the editor) got excited hearing this and then offered to let me come and sit in at the mix stage. It was incredible watching the film come together like that. In between the mixing sessions I was able to ask the sound engineers questions about their workflow which I have now applied to my home mixing sessions. I am so lucky that Tamara and Brian are the type of people who would invest in my interests like that. I will never forget their kindness. 

As you move on from your time spent as a PA, what final advice do you leave behind for future PAs?

If there is one thing I would like other aspiring Post PAs to know it's what you do matters. I am lucky to have worked with some incredibly kind and generous people. But some days it can be overwhelming when your job entails minding all the little things and it seems everyone around you is doing all the big things. 

Some people may knowingly or unknowingly make you feel small while you are doing the small things but remember you are enough. You deserve to be in the room. 

You won't learn everything you need to know from one job. Moving up in the industry will take time and this is YOUR time to determine what path you want to take. Choosing a different path than the one you thought you wanted does not mean you have failed, it's just part of the process. 

While I was interviewing foley artist Joanna Fang for the post educational video series that I produced last year, she inspired me by saying, "This industry asks you to be very good at a specific task. So go out there, find that task and don't be afraid if you fail." That's what I am striving to do. To summarize: I want to encourage you to be kind, work hard, and keep going.



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