March 29th, 2017

How deep the rabbit hole goes

Back in the olden days of 1999 it was pretty much the only movie that I watched in the theaters. In pre-digital days it took a few months for a movie to complete its theatrical rollout across the globe, and once it got into theaters, it stayed for much longer than it does these days. Such was the story of “The Matrix” for me. It stayed in local theaters for at least six months, and I was a single guy with not much to do in the evening after work. So every week, at least twice a week, I would go to watch it again. And again. And again. It’s quite unlikely, in fact, that there’s ever going to be a movie that I’ll watch more times than I’ve watched “The Matrix”.

Back in those olden days, people didn’t wake up to write a new Javascript library. People woke up to write a Matrix rain screensaver. Those would be the mirrored half-width kanas, as well as Latin characters and arabic numerals.

A few years later, “Matrix: Reloaded” came out, taking the binary rain into the third dimension as the glyphs were sliding down multiple virtual sheets of glass. And I finally decided to dip my toes into the world of making my own Matrix rain screensaver, complete with many of the visual effects that were seen in that movie. There’s a bunch of old code that I’ve uploaded as an historical artifact right here. Fair warning – this was 13 years ago, and as many do when they first start out, I reimplemented a bunch of stuff that was already there in the JDK. If you dive into the code, you’ll see a home grown implementation of a linked list, as well as a rather gnarly monstrosity that exposed something that resembled a canvas / graphics API. Don’t judge me. Anyhoo, on to the topic of this post.

One of the things I’ve wanted to do in that screensaver was to take a string as input and render it in the style of Matrix titles:

In here, every glyph undergoes one or more transformations (cropping, displacement, segment duplication). In addition, there are connectors that link glyphs together. It is these connectors that I’m going to talk about. Or, more precisely, how can you come up with the “best” way to connect the glyphs of any input string, and what makes a particular connector chain the “best” chain for that string?

This image captures the “essence” of quantifying the quality of a connector. In the title sequence of the original movie, as well as the sequels, the connectors are only placed at three vertical positions – top, middle and bottom. That is the starting point of this diagram. In addition, there are the following factors at the level of an individual glyph:

  1. On the scale from 1 to 5, how far the connector would have to go “into” the glyph to connect to the closest pixel? So, the bottom part of A gets 5’s on both sides, and the top part gets 2’s on both sides. The middle part of J gets 0 on the left (as the connector would have to “travel” across the entire glyph) and 4 on the right (as the connector would need to go past the rightmost point of the top serif).
  2. Defining a “natural” connection point to be (in the diagram above green marks such a point while red signifies that the point is not natural):
    • Anything on top and bottom – this is an escape valve that would make sure that any input string has at least one connector chain
    • Serifs in the middle – such as the right side of G
    • Crossbars in the middle, extending to both sides of the glyph – such as A, B or R.

Then, a valid connector chain would be defined as:

  1. No two consecutive connectors can be placed at the same vertical position. In the example of the original title, the connector chain is top-bottom-middle-bottom-top.
  2. A connector must have positive (non-zero) value on both sides. For example, you can’t connect A and J in the middle because the left side of J places value 0 on the middle position.
  3. A connector must have at least one natural connection point. For example, N and O can’t be connected in the middle, while N and P can (as P’s left side defines the middle position as a natural connection point)

Finally, the overall “quality” of the entire connector chain is computed as:

  1. The sum of connection point values along both sides of each connector
  2. Weighed by the chi-square value of the connector vertical positions along the entire chain
  3. Weighed by the mean probability of the connector vertical positions along the entire chain

The last two factors aim to “favor” chains that look “random”. For example, there is not much randomness in a top-bottom-top-bottom-top-bottom chain. You want to have a bit of variety and “noise” in a chain so that it doesn’t look explicitly constructed, so to speak. As can be seen in the diagram above, the middle vertical position is not a natural connection point for a lot of glyphs, and both of these factors aim to bring a well-distributed usage of all vertical position into the mix.

It is true that the basic underlying rules of defining how a glyph connector chain is constructed are based on the visuals of the Matrix movie titles. You might think of this as the basic rules of physics that apply to the particular universe. However, the evaluation of a specific constructed chain is a softer framework, so to speak. There is nothing explicit in these rules that would force the quality score of the particular connector chain that you see in the final graphics for these particular six letters to be the highest of all valid chains.

When I first ran the finished implementation, it was one of those rare moments of pure, unadulterated geek joy:

These are all possible valid connector chains for the word “MATRIX”, ordered by the quality score that is based on values of individual connector points, as well as statistical variation that accounts for predictability and randomization within a specific sequence. Yes, the top score goes to the sequence that was used in the movie title!

Let’s look at “RELOADED” next:

And these are the top 39 valid connector chains for that word:

While my algorithm found the perfect match for “MATRIX” connector chain, the connector chain that was used in the movie for “RELOADED” is scored at place #37. You can see where it falls flat – in the top connector between L and O. The score value for top connector on the right side of L is 1 out of 5, and while the score value for top connector on the left side of O is 5 out of 5, that drastically lowers the overall score. In addition, the last four connectors are bottom-middle-bottom-middle which lowers the median probability factor applied to the entire quality score of this chain.

The connector chain selected by the third movie for the word “REVOLUTIONS” is not considered a valid one based on the rules that I chose after “Reloaded” was out. Specifically, the middle connector between U and T is not valid, as there is neither a serif not a crossbar in these two glyphs. And the same applies to the middle connector between I and O.

Finally, the “ANIMATRIX” title deviates slightly in the “MATRIX” part, using middle connector placement between M and A. How did my algorithm fair on scoring this chain?

This was a close one. The connector chain used in the movie title scores at the second place, with the only difference being in the very first connector (top instead of middle).

It’s hard to quantify artistic choices, and I don’t presume to claim that the top-scored connector chain for “RELOADED” based on the rules of my algorithm is clearly superior to what ended up in the actual movie titles. Would it be worth to tweak the scoring system? I don’t think so. There are a couple of noticeable “week” connectors in the connector chain in the movie title, and relaxing the scoring rules would only introduce more randomness into the process without necessarily bumping up that chain up the ranks.

Perhaps the artistic choice of choosing a long top L to O connector was based on introducing a bit of variance and randomness into the mix. Or perhaps I should check to see who was in charge of the title graphics and ask them :)

March 24th, 2017

Cinematography of “Narcos” – interview with Carmen Cabana

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my delight to welcome Carmen Cabana. In this interview we talk about Carmen’s cinematography work on the second season of “Narcos”, being a part of the new digital generation, the art of telling stories with light, the ever evolving technological landscape of her field, the crazy pace of shooting for episodic television, collaborating with the other two cinematographers of the show, planning and executing elaborate action sequences, and working for the very first time in her home country of Colombia.


Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and how you started in the field.

Carmen: My name is Carmen Cabana, and what drew me into the industry was the passion for telling stories and not having a job behind a desk. I wanted to spend my life doing something that would change on a weekly basis, if possible. The film industry made sense for that.

Funny enough, I came to US to pursue writing, and the more I wrote, the more I realized how terrible I was at it. I have no talent for writing, but I have a natural talent for cinematography, lighting, camera, and composition. When I look back now, I find that in a sense I am telling stories by writing with light and images. I’m very happy with that. I’ve had an opportunity to work on several productions that involved different topics and countries, and people from different nationalities. That’s what I really wanted with my life – to be surrounded with people who would stimulate me, and who I would render service in return.

Kirill: Did you have a formal education to become a cinematographer?

Carmen: It was more of a transition into it. I went to the Art Institute of Los Angeles, but I only did a year and a half in associate’s program there. Most of the classes were oriented towards editing, screenwriting and directing. We had one cinematography class and it was very basic. We learned three point lighting, F stops, etc and with that I’d be lighting interviews for the rest of my life [laughs]. It was not enough of what I needed for cinematography.

In my second year at that school I did a documentary in Venezuela about a boy growing up in a neighborhood of gangs. I did everything on it – directed and shot the whole thing. People really appreciated it visually, and that’s what got me my first short films. After that I was blessed that somebody saw one of my shorts called “Miles”, and they liked it so much that they called me to work on a feature. That was “The Sinners”, and after that I did “Letters to Elena”, “The Border” and a bunch of others.

I did it backwards. I didn’t expect to be a cinematographer, but as people kept on hiring me and pushing me in that direction, I had to learn. I remember my first production “Miles”, reading “Masters of Light” book days before the shoot to figure things out. I also read “Reflections” which is a book of interviews with cinematographers, forcing my brain to understand how they think. How do you tell that story? How do they make the decisions that they make? Even now when I start on a project, I go back to written sources, like the American Cinematographer magazine or new books.


Carmen Cabana’s work on “Letters to Elena

Kirill: Would you say that you’re a part of all-digital generation, or do you work with film as well?

Carmen: Unfortunately, I’m all digital. My school program was in motion picture and video production, but we never learned film. I’ve only shot Super 8. It’s harder to teach yourself to work with film. You’re talking about film stock and expensive chemical processes that are becoming less accessible. So it never happened.

I keep on hoping for a project where the client is going to demand film so that I will have to go that way. So far for me it’s been keeping up with the technology demands of the clients. I haven’t made the time to learn film, sadly.

Kirill: There are some advantages to digital camera. People can see what is captured on the attached monitors, and the equipment is lighter and more manageable, perhaps?

Carmen: I do work out quite a lot [laughs] so the camera weight is not a problem. It’s all about balance, even with the heavier cameras.

Sometimes I use a light meter, and sometimes I gauge light stops with my eye. I’m definitely spoiled by being used to the false color and histogram on digital cameras. You look at it and you know the range you’re in. It would be a learning curve. I’d have to at least understand the relationship between a particular film stock and how it is processed. Working with digital all the time, I know the sensors like the palm of my hand. I know different circumstances and how much I can push into post-production.


Carmen Cabana’s work on “Letters to Elena

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March 20th, 2017

Invisible digital worlds – interview with Dan May

Last month I’ve had the pleasure of talking with Joel Collins about the production design of the extraordinary “Black Mirror”. And today I am thrilled to have an opportunity to talk with Joel’s colleague at Painting Practice, the VFX art director Dan May. Dan’s portfolio is as wide and deep as the variety of positions he has explored over the years in the art department – from concept artist to matte painter to pre-vis artist to art director to, most recently, the crossover roles that bridge the worlds of physical and digital. In this interview we talk about the role of a VFX art director and where it fits in the ever-evolving world of art and technology of feature films and episodic TV productions, diving deeper into the intricate universe of “Black Mirror”.

Kirill: Please tell us about how you started in the field.

Dan: I’ve been quite lucky. My dad was an actor, and when I was at school I already knew I wanted to do something in set design. I used to go to theaters and see him play in musicals and other productions, and when I went backstage, set design was always magical for me. You could be in a mundane space on the outside, and then you go inside on a stage and there’s something amazing – a forest or a New York street. You walk behind it and there’s nothing, just plywood and people smoking. There was magic in that for me.

I pushed in that direction when I was at college. Originally I was going to do theater design, and I did my internship at the Royal Opera House making models. I had a really good tutor called Moira Tait who had lots of connections in the industry and a lot of her students become senior people in the industry that are often looking for new juniors and apprentices. I spent the first year of my career working on a list of people I’d like to work. Every Monday morning my job was to go down that list, find them and ask if I could come over to see what they were doing. Lots of people replied that they didn’t have time, but eventually you’d get lucky and they invite you to come over and show your work.

Eventually I got a few breaks and I started at the bottom of the art department, drawing things like windows and doors, going on set and doing the things that you do at the bottom of the ladder. You’re making tea, driving to get prints, helping to dress sets – there’s lots of things to do. And I enjoyed that.

I was always into the CG (computer graphics) side of things, and when I started out twenty years ago, it didn’t really exist. Some people in the art department were starting to use computers, but mainly it was in VFX (visual effects). I started using 3D modeling software early on, and a lot of people were freaked out by it. I did very early pre-vis on some set designs, helping the art department to calculate where the back windows go.

At that point I was getting quite a few jobs, and I was able to go around and see different designers. At that time Joel Collins was doing commercial and music video work. I went to show him my work, and he was really into it. He didn’t understand all of it, but he knew that the computer side of things was going to be good. We did a few smaller jobs together, and I continued to work on bigger feature films, doing 3D set design, drawing in the computer. As I was getting better at it, I worked with Joel quite a lot. We were doing much bigger productions at that point, working with people like David Slade, Hammer and Tongs and Traktor.

We started traveling around the world to places like South Africa and Prague, doing a lot of high-profile work. I’ve gained a lot of experience in set design, and at the same time I was quite keen to do VFX and post-production design. We were building our sets, but also designing matte paintings for post houses. That evolved and grew to the point about ten years ago when I said that it was what I needed to do. And if we wanted to do it well, we needed more equipment and more people to help us.

Back then we started getting into pre-vis which was in its early infancy. They’ve been doing a lot of it in US, but there was only one company doing it here in the UK somewhere in Soho. There was that gap in the market, so we started pre-vis. We kind of got lucky because nobody was doing it at that stage. I did pre-vis on “Quantum of Solace”, “Angels and Demons” and a couple of other big films. It was a fast learning curve because a lot of people didn’t understand what it was for. It frustrated people.


Concept design, matte painting and VFX work for a Nike commercial. Courtesy of Painting Practice.

Kirill: What kind of a frustration are we talking about?

Dan: It’s a tool that needs to be used right, and to be engaged with by all the department heads. Otherwise it costs a lot of money and doesn’t gain anything for anyone. Everyone needs to have time and energy to feed into it for it to be of any value. Otherwise you have people best-guessing what the director and the cinematographer and the production designer want to see.

But over time it has changed. People now understand what it’s for. It’s more productive and efficient, and that’s what I’m doing right now for my next production. Everyone is engaged, and it’s essential to the pipeline. We have people building sets and making shots, and it’s all working very fluidly.

That took us ten years of understanding what the company does, and understanding how the computer tools have evolved. The ethos of our company is about how the two worlds, that of the traditional art department and that of visual effects, are combined and how they work together in pre-production for the shoot to be better, as well as for post-production to be more efficient. If it works, the final product is more creative and better for it.

It’s still very much work in progress. People are changing the rules trying to figure out how it works. Who drives the pre-vis? When does the VFX start? There’s an enormous amount of VFX work on these big-budget productions these days. It might be something invisible that you don’t want the audience to be aware of – like set extensions for period films. You don’t want the audience to see that it’s CG. It’s part of the rollercoaster ride of going to see a film. You want to see beautiful shots and amazing things.


Matte painting for “Nosedive” episode from Season 3 of “Black Mirror”. Courtesy of Painting Practice.

“Black Mirror” fits in a different camp. VFX wants to be invisible and accepted as a part of that world. But at the same time, people are interested in us trying to predict what’s next. They want to see a less showy and a more realistic version of what the future might look like. I can’t talk for the creators or the producers of the show, but in general the opinion of VFX that Joel and I share is for the show to be pared down. It has to be believable and acceptable. I think that’s what people like about it. It feels like a very believable universe. It’s not too glitzy.

There have been moments in the third season which are more traditional VFX shots. They’ve been generated from scratch in CG, but they had to be completely photo-real. We didn’t want them to feel created in any shape or form.

That’s where we are at the moment. The company is a mixture of concept design, matte painting and motion graphics. We’re in this weird space between an art-based pre-production company and a VFX house. We do use fairly expensive bits of software and equipment to do what we do. It’s the same tools that a VFX house would use, but primarily for the design purposes. We have to create a place to house that, to have an office with the people that service that equipment. I suppose that by necessity we are a production company of art work and art creation that can service any point in the production process.

In the ideal world, like with “Black Mirror”, we service from the very beginning seed of the story all the way through to the very end. On most of the episodes of the third season it was myself, Justin Hutchinson-Chatburn or another freelancer Sean Mathiesen who VFX-supervised all the shots to the very end. I was also the VFX art director for Joel on most of the show, and Joel did the production design for all the episodes.

So we’ve started at the very beginning in terms of conceptualizing what the VFX would look like. And then it’s our responsibility, but not necessarily our job, to facilitate the look of those and get them signed off by Charlie, Annabel and the directors, so that everybody is happy with the final result. We wouldn’t necessarily do that through our company. It would be done with vendors like Framestore, Glassworks and Jellyfish.


Concept design, matte painting and VFX work for a Nike commercial. Courtesy of Painting Practice.

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March 3rd, 2017

Production design of Vinyl – interview with Bill Groom

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Bill Groom. His career in the art department spans four decades, and includes feature films such as “A League of Their Own”, “It Could Happen to You”, “Perfect Stranger”, “Milk” and “Eat Pray Love”. Most recently he worked as the production designer on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” that earned him four straight Emmy awards, as well as on the first (and unfortunately the only) season of “Vinyl”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and how you started in the industry.

Bill: I went to graduate school at Tulane, New Orleans and then after that I taught for four years at the Stony Broke University in New York. When I was at school, I always imagined I would have a career in theater, and a friend of mine once told me that these careers are not linear. I think she was right about that. Some things present themselves along the way, you make choices and that leads to another choice. That is how it evolves.

When I was teaching, during the summers I worked with a friend of mine who had friends at Saturday Night Live. When there was a job opening there, she let me know, and I went there for an interview. That what started me on the path to television and movies. Eugene Lee was the designer on SNL at the time, and I assisted him. He also did a few made-for-TV movies for PBS, hiring me as his assistant. He ended up turning one of them over to me, and that’s how I got started.

I did several of those for PBS. The first one was “Life on the Mississippi”, and the last one was “Huckleberry Finn”. And I continued working on SNL as I was doing those, because those productions were mostly done during summertime, except for the last one which overlapped. I made a choice there and didn’t go back to SNL. I’ve worked on SNL for four years, and by the end of it I was 28 years old. I’ll be 66 next month, so that tells you how long SNL has been on [laughs]. I could’ve spent my entire career on that one show. But I’ve enjoyed the different things that I’ve done since then.

Kirill: And that’s when you moved into the world of feature film, doing art direction and production design.

Bill: First I designed several TV shows for PBS, and through a few director contacts that I’ve made I did a couple of network pilots. And at some point I’ve decided that to really quickly move into the feature world, I needed to get to know it a little bit. At the time, all those years ago, it was probably a bit more different from television than it is now.

I think that now some of the work in TV is more interesting than some of the work in features. It’s almost 40 years ago that I’ve started in TV. A friend of mine used to say that TV was broadcasting and not narrowcasting. That was 40 years ago, and now it’s pretty much narrowcasting. These shows have much smaller audiences than they did in the day when I was first doing TV.

It seems to me that TV is doing a lot more interesting work and taking more chances in some ways than features. There’s a lot of money riding on features, and that has an effect on choices that are made from the production standpoint.

Kirill: And some TV shows attract a lot of talent that used to work exclusively in the feature world.

Bill: Partly it’s because of the work that is being done in television and what the premium cable networks are choosing to produce. I think that’s what draws the people who expected to have a career in features and weren’t that interested in TV five years ago.

I saw that happening. I was offered the job at the “Boardwalk Empire” at the same time as I was being frustrated with the feature project that was on and off for over a year. We would be on for a few months, and we’d be off, and then it would come up again. It was all about trying to make sense of it financially. I was pretty frustrated with it at that point, and they offered me “Boardwalk Empire” that was fifteen minutes from my front door. It was an easy choice [laughs].

I really like the people making the show, and the show itself. I took the job and haven’t done a feature since. Last year I did “Vinyl” and we had hopes for it to go on for a few years. They’ve announced the second season and then cancelled it. I had already moved on from it because Terry Winter left, and a lot of people who I knew and that were working on it left as well. I wanted to take this summer off and take care of some personal things.

Unless a really interesting TV project comes along, I’ll probably think about going back into features for a while. I did a project in Canada that ended a month ago. It’s called “When We Rise” and all my old friends from “Milk” – Gus Van Sant and Dustin Lance Black among the rest – are involved with it. It’s a mini-series that will be in ABC in February. It’s about the history of the LGBT movement in San Francisco from about 1971 to 2015. It’s just a great team of people to work with, and I really enjoyed that.

When I first started it, they were OK with the idea of me going back to “Vinyl”, but I didn’t have to as it turns out. So I was able to stay with it until it was done. I’m really excited about it and I think we did a great job. It was one of the broadcast networks doing premium cable material, really. It was quite challenging because budgets are a bit lower than they are for HBO, Netflix, Amazon etc. Everybody worked very hard and I think we’ve produced a nice series.

Kirill: It feels to me that stories that were once told in mid-budget feature dramas are being told as episodic television these days.

Bill: That’s been happening for a while for the mid-level dramatic productions that I always thought would be the projects that I’d be doing when I started out in film. I did one action movie years ago. It actually wasn’t an action movie when we started [laughs], but it kept getting rewritten, and each time it got more action in it. I was offered other action movies after that, and it wasn’t just hand-crafted enough for me. It was too big, and I enjoy being a little more hands on with every department and every part of the art department.

It was “Money Train” and it was one art department in Los Angeles and one in New York, and more than a dozen set designers, and set decorators on both coasts. For its day it was a big-budget project. And I didn’t enjoy it as much as some of the more hand-crafted projects.

I think you’re right about TV being the place where mid-level interesting dramatic stories have settled. The production that I mentioned being frustrated about struggled because of that. It finally got off the ground – it was “Selma”. I was quite excited about doing it with Lee Daniels when he was directing it. By the time it was made, Lee had moved on to something else. It was the struggle to get it going, and it was about money, about not being able to make it for the number that they wanted to make it for then. I don’t know what the budget ended up being on that project.

That’s the struggle with the smaller indie projects. They are really hard to do. It’s a lot of work. You’re working for not quite enough money to pay your bills [laughs]. On some level you’re kind of subsidizing the project, and that works for some people.

I did a little movie called “Paper Man” with Jeff Daniels, and I loved the script. But at a certain point in your life when you have certain responsibilities, you can’t do those movies all the time. You can take a moment to do something you really like and not make your standard rate doing that, but you can’t always work for those projects at a certain point in your life.

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