August 1st, 2016

Cinematoraphy of “Miss Julie” – interview with Mikhail Krichman

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Mikhail Krichman. In this interview we talk about the start of his career in the early ’90s that coincided with the big political changes in Russia, his ongoing collaboration with Andrey Zvyagintsev that included the Oscar-nominated “Leviathan”, how stories cross cultural borders and how stories can change dramatically when they are told in a different language (dubbing or voiceover), and the transition of the industry from film to digital in the last decade. The second half of the interview is about Mikhail’s work on the wonderfully crafted world of the recently released “Miss Julie”.

Mikhail Krichman on set. Photography by Anna Matveeva.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and how you got into the industry.

Mikhail: It happened almost accidentally. My parents come from the field of book typesetting. After finishing my army service I didn’t know what to do with myself, and I chose the easiest path. I wouldn’t say that it interested me that much, but I didn’t know anything else. I spent a lot of time in printing houses, and I liked the smell of the paint. Those were the things from my childhood that made me start my studies at what is now Moscow State University of Printing Arts.

It was around 1991. They had an arts department, but since I didn’t have any drawing skills, I didn’t have any thoughts about doing graphic design. I joined the department of technical studies, learning about the technology and the process of book printing. After third semester I moved to an extramural study program and started doing part time jobs. Those didn’t have any connection neither to what I do now nor to what I was continuing to study, and from what I remember from those activities, I might have even lost money doing them.

Mikhail Krichman on set.
Photography by Anna Matveeva.

And it so happened that I met a guy that was about to graduate from the cinematography department of the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography. It was a birthday party, and I asked a question that probably a lot of people ask in a similar situation – would it be possible to visit a set and see how things work when they shoot a movie. We talked for a bit and then he disappeared, and I almost forgot about him. Then after a year he got in touch, saying that he had an opportunity for me to come and visit a set. That was how I saw a film set for the first time – as he was directing and shooting some kind of a commercial.

But that’s not how I started my path to becoming cinematographer. A bit later, again with the help of the same guy, I visited the editing room of a TV station. Back in the 1990s it was simply possible to go there and enter the buildings. The editing room was empty apart from one day a week. It was full with Betacams and mixing consoles, and I remember myself spending day after day reading the manuals, learning how different machines worked, trying to mix source materials that didn’t even belong to me. And after some time I became a junior editor.

Kirill: Without having some kind of a formal education in the field.

Mikhail: I noticed the people who knew what they were doing in the editing room, and started learning from them. It wasn’t overly difficult, and my boss saw that I wasn’t all that bad, so he kept me around. After a while I had a chance to sit through a number of study groups led by a teacher from the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography. She was teaching courses on editing, and my boss invited her a few times a week to give lectures to me and my colleagues. She talked mostly about editing film, and it was a free-form dialogue. We didn’t have any strict plan, and keeping notes was optional even though we all kept detailed notes. She was a great teacher, and I learned a lot from her, things that stay with me until now.

I’ve spent around three-four years there, and then found the next step in my career. I met Leonid Kruglov who was doing a travel show for a national TV station. He invited me to Cuba to make a documentary with him, which was my first job in doing documentaries. It was only him and me, making a show about Santería and their religious beliefs.

Right around that time we had first appearances of small hand-held digital cameras from Sony. Betacams were already around, of course, but they were bulky and expensive, confining them to studio environments. The small digital camera that we had cost around $3,000 and we also got a wide lens, starting to experiment with this new hardware and what it allowed you to do in the field. It was amazing at the time.

I also started doing music clips, as directors liked that I was both shooting and editing the material. And I kept on doing that travel show, going with a slightly bigger crew of five and two cameras. We did Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Colombia and Peru among the rest. That was already 1999.

And then in 2000 I met Andrey Zvyagintsev that worked at REN TV at the time. He got offered to do “The Black Room” show, choosing a few short stories to shoot. He was looking for cinematographers to shoot individual episodes, and one of my director friends put us in touch.

Kirill: And you continued working with him afterwards.

Mikhail: Yes. We did those three short stories, each one 25 minutes long and not related to the others. The show was received well, and I was contacted by a film studio to do my first full feature, “Binge Theory”. Then I did “Sky. Plane. Girl” in 2002.

Kirill: I remember the years after the collapse of Soviet Union, where a lot of industries underwent very big changes, as what was controlled by the state and the party was now transitioning into private hands. What was the state of the film industry in Russia around 2000?

Mikhail: The industry lost a lot of talented people, key people across all departments, including second unit directors, camera operators and script writers. People lost their jobs during that period, going to other fields that didn’t even have much connection to arts. Some went abroad and some just disappeared.

I wasn’t a big fan of Russian cinema at the time. I remember seeing differences in the artistic and visual quality of American, British and French films. I was also younger, and American movies were much closer to my taste as well. I can’t remember a single local film from the ’90s that had left a powerful impression on me. There were a few indie films that failed to deliver on their promise, and a lot of them went nowhere. Also, due to lack of budget, most of them were not done that well compared to european or American productions.

I think that aesthetics are an important part of making a film. When the form is untidy and messy, the content is sometimes lost. And that was struggling to pull their weight against the smooth form of the American films. It feels that only now I am starting to discover Russian cinema. Andrei Tarkovsky was a formidable figure. I might not have been able to appreciate his content at the time, but the form was powerful.

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July 21st, 2016

Dark screens with blue lines – interview with Corey Bramall

Why are we seeing more screen graphics in TV shows these days? And why are those graphics almost always blue? Should we expect realism in how technology and user interfaces are portrayed in film and TV? Augmented and virtual reality – what can they be good for in our everyday lives? Is the technology around us evolving too fast and leaving too many people behind?

It gives me great pleasure to welcome Corey Bramall (aka Decca Digital) back to the ongoing series of interviews with designers and artists that bring user interfaces and graphics to film and TV screens. In our first interview we talked about his work on “Thor”, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Transformers”. Since then Corey has been busy at work on “Wayward Pines”, “Extant”, “The 5th Wave”, “Ant-Man” and, most recently, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2” and “Captain America: Civil War”. As we talk about the topics mentioned in the opening paragraph and his recent work, we also discuss “Black Mirror”, “Ex Machina” and “Her”, and consider whether those fall under the realm of fantasy user interfaces.

Screen graphics for Wayward Pines, courtesy of Corey Bramall.

Kirill: Let’s start by talking about the work you did for “Wayward Pines”.

Corey: We did the first season on that show. It was an interesting project, something that Fox has called “New Mystery Series”. It was only ten episodes, and it was nice. Each episode had a bigger budget, which adds almost like a movie quality to the show, and I thought it looked really good.

We did most of the bunker graphics which occurred later in the show. They didn’t reveal it until near the end of the first season. It was kind of an odd project where we did our work near the end. We were allowed to do almost whatever we wanted on it, which was nice.

Kirill: Without revealing too many details, what I found interesting about the show was that while the story is set in the future, the technology comes from our present days.

Corey: Without too many spoilers, they’re taking people from the present and cryogenically preserve them, but the computer technology can’t evolve. There are only so many people that have made it, so they wouldn’t have too many new pieces of technology or graphic design. It looked pretty real-world.

Kirill: How’s the pace of work on television? Do you work on the entire season, or is it one episode at a time?

Corey: It used to be one episode at a time, but nowadays they’re shooting two at the same time. If there’s a set with computers in it on both episodes, they’ll schedule the shots back to back so that they don’t have to move the crew. It gets confusing sometimes [laughs]. You’re making stuff for an episode, and halfway through it you’re making something for the next one.

It’s also usually a short shoot, six to eight days. It used to be a lot longer, maybe ten days for an episode five years ago.

Screen graphics for Wayward Pines, courtesy of Corey Bramall.

Kirill: Do you do on-set playback sequences, or post-production?

Corey: For television it’s almost always on-set playback. I don’t go to set; I’m lucky to just stay in my office and design, while other people go to set.

I’ll get a script, and the breakdown of the scenes that we need for it from the show’s coordinator. I go through the list of things that I need to create, I do that and I give that back to them. Then another person go to set and they have to set up the computer, to make sure that everything functions technically. I don’t have to deal with that. It’s kind of nice [laughs].

Kirill: You mentioned that this show has an almost cinematic quality to it, and I guess that goes for a lot of TV drama these days, especially for higher-end productions that do “only” 10-12 episodes per season. Would you say that it requires the same attention to detail and sophistication of the work you’re doing if you compare it to feature films?

Corey: It is now. And that’s especially true for medical sets on television. They’ll have a medical tech there checking to see that the stuff you create is accurate. The only used to do that on film, because they have bigger budgets, but you see a lot of that on TV shows now. You have to be a lot more careful [laughs] about what you’re making. You can’t just wing it. You have to do better research. So that’s getting a lot more similar to film.

And then there’s also the quality. The gap between television and film is so small now.

Screen graphics for Wayward Pines, courtesy of Corey Bramall.

Kirill: It’s just a slightly different form of storytelling, where film studios are creating franchise universes that evolve throughout multiple films, and TV shows are exploring very tightly scripted arcs.

Corey: I think it’s also a symptom of hardware being so cheap. If a production needs a couple of 70″ monitors, for example, they can just go and buy them. That’s available and not expensive, whereas before it was a big deal to add such large monitors. Not everybody could afford that, and there just weren’t that many.

Often now you build graphics for a set on a TV show, and they keep on adding monitors and need content for those. It’s similar to the world of feature film – they’ll do what is right visually, as opposed what is right for the budget. Five monitors is not that big of a deal anymore, but there’s that much more content to make. On a film it’s pretty typical to have 20-30 monitors on a set, but that used to never occur on TV sets. You see it often now, which is great.

Screen graphics for The 5th Wave, courtesy of Corey Bramall.

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July 20th, 2016

The craft of screen graphics and movie user interfaces – interview with John LePore

At the intersection of art and technology, the ever-increasing importance of screen graphics in film reflects the expanding arc of human-computer interaction in our everyday lives and the pervasive presence of glass screens around us. It gives me great pleasure to welcome John LePore of Perception to the ongoing series of interviews with designers and artists that bring user interfaces and graphics to the big screens.

In this first of two parts on the work that Perception has been doing in the last few years John talks about his background in motion graphics, Perception’s first foray into the world of FUI on “Iron Man 2”, the ongoing collaboration with Marvel on “Avengers” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, the initial explorations around defining and refining screen graphics elements, the evolution of FUI over the years that tries to stay ahead of the evolution of technology and UI in the real world, and balancing between showing realistic interactions and the primary directive of supporting the story. He also dives deep into the automotive interfaces of “The Winter Soldier” and the pace of changes in the automotive industry in the real world, how we can improve the ways we interact with devices and information, and the work Perception is doing outside the realm of feature film productions.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your path so far.

John: I’m John LePore and I’m the creative director at Perception. I’ve been working with Perception since 2006. A lot of people would say that it’s an unusually long time period to be working at one particular studio. At least on our side of the industry people tend to hold a full-time position for around 18 months at a time or so. I’ve had a great time working here since then.

Going all the way back, I’ve studied traditional design in school. I’ve always been fascinated with and really curious about motion graphics. Back then – around 2002 – motion graphics was just about to explode in the industry. I discovered it just as it was beginning to rapidly evolve and change. As soon as I got to it, I instantly knew that it was it, that it was absolutely what I wanted to do. Before that I wondered whether I want to do print design or web design or maybe some stuff that I see on television. Learning about After Effects and motion design in general, seeing studios like MK12 which was the first one I ever came across – just blew my mind.

Since then I’ve worked at a lot of studios, and then found Perception which is, more than anything, a really fun studio to work at. The owners are really nice to work with, giving me an almost terrifying amount of responsibility which I really appreciate. As I was working here there projects shifted and changed.

Part of the initial explorations for the Stark Expo keynote sequence in Iron Man 2. Courtesy of Perception.

A huge breakthrough for us was back in 2010 with Iron Man 2. That was our first feature film that we worked on. We had a long-standing relationship with Marvel, mostly helping them with small projects. When Iron Man 2 came along, we were contacted by the Marvel team for a couple of elements. It was a great opportunity, an almost shocking thing to have our first feature film to be a really major one in a popular franchise. It was a really exciting opportunity for us.

We got into interface elements within Iron Man 2, but we didn’t do futuristic interfaces before it. We had done work with an information design angle to it. A key project in my career in that area was in 2007. The network ABC asked us to help them redesign their election graphics coverage. We had upcoming elections of 2008, and they wanted to have a whole graphics package for it that felt really great and innovative. We were figuring out different ways to visualize the data, and I loved it.

I like working with elements in motion graphics that are more graphic design based. I certainly appreciate a lot of things that go into the traditional visual effects, but my heart is always with the traditional graphic design. So a project like this election coverage gave us an opportunity to really dive deeper into things like visualizing information or focusing on legibility that you don’t traditionally get an opportunity to do with motion graphics. Motion graphics is usually about making one specific message really shiny, make it pop off the screen. And that project had more of a cerebral approach to it.

During that project I already started to thing about taking inspiration from the early work by Mark Coleran. I know there were other people working at that time, but he seemed to be the guy who was doing these futuristic interfaces.

Conceptualizing the Stark Smart Phone in Iron Man 2. Courtesy of Perception.

Kirill: That’s my impression as well that he appeared to be almost the only one doing screen graphics until somewhere around 8-10 years ago.

John: There were a couple of other guys, but it seemed to be that he was the expert, the master, the Yoda of futuristic user interface. I took a lot of inspiration from him. As I and other people at the studio were working on the election project, we were thinking how awesome it would be to make these interfaces for sci-fi films. That was a pretty early goal for us.

So when Iron Man 2 came along, we were tasked with a really simple challenge. In an emergency turnaround they needed on-screen graphics projected for the Stark Expo. They had a massive screen on the stage with Tony Stark standing in front of it presenting. They needed more traditional motion graphics playing in the background on this huge practical screen.

While we were reviewing design concepts for that scene with the team at Marvel, there was one concept that they didn’t ultimately approve. But when they looked at it, we literally heard someone in the background on the conference call saying that this one element reminded him of Tony’s glass phone. And on the other side of the call we were asking if he did just say glass phone with holograms on it. We were really excited at the prospect of that, and they told us not to worry and focus on the Expo screen.

Interface elements for the coffee table in Iron Man 2. Courtesy of Perception.

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July 9th, 2016

Production design of “The Angry Birds Movie” – interview with Pete Oswald

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Pete Oswald. In the last few years he has worked on “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa”, both “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” movies, “ParaNorman” and “Hotel Transylvania”. And just a couple of months ago he completed “The Angry Birds Movie” on which he was the production designer. In this interview Pete talks about the magic of animated films, the transition of the industry from hand-drawn animation to CG [computer generated], the yet-unsolved problem of faithfully reproducing human skin, creating animated universes not bound by physical laws of the real world, the job and the responsibilities of a production designer on an animated film, and the overall structure of a production. And as we talk, Pete delves deeper into the details of bringing the Angry Birds story from the original game franchise to the big screen.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and how you got into the animation industry.

Pete: I’ve always been an artist. My mom is a painter and a fine artist. As a child, she would teach art classes in our basement. I would sit in the back and draw all day. I always thought of going into this profession, and when it was time to look at colleges, I didn’t really know that animation was a real job [laughs]. I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, far away from Hollywood. I didn’t know you could actually make a living in animation until I started looking at colleges in LA. That’s when I realized that a lot of my drawings had an animated feel to them.

I started doing more research. I read Disney’s “The Illusion of Life” and got hooked. I went to Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles to study animation and minor in graphic design. From there I was able to get hired to do my first job at the Cartoon Network, and then my career took off after that.

Kirill: When did you start working in the industry?

Pete: That was around 2003. I got hired by the Cartoon Network to work on the show called “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends” as a character designer. I learned so much in my first few years at that studio through some amazing artists. Then I went on to work on “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” at Dreamworks. That was an amazing opportunity too because I got to experience my first feature film. After that I went on to work on “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” at Sony. “ParaNorman” at Laika, then back to Sony to work on “Hotel Transylvania” and “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2”. And now I’ve just finished up “The Angry Birds Movie” on which I was the production designer.

Kirill: Bringing you back to 2003, hand-drawn animation was still going strong.

Pete: Yes, it was. I think we were just starting to get into the CG [computer generated] realm. A few very successful CG films have come out by then – “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2” and some of the first Shrek film. 2D was still on the cusp and not quite dead yet. In school they wanted to teach us both, because it’s great to learn both mediums and have an understanding of the entire process.

It was really interesting to see the entire transition from 2D to CG. I think at the end of the day it’s all still about storytelling and it becomes a different technical approach. Both are really great, but the computers are so powerful now and they can do anything you want them to do.

Sketch for “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”.

Kirill: Have we seen the last breath of hand-drawn animation, at least in feature productions?

Pete: I don’t think it’ll ever die. In features I think Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” was the last American animated feature film. But Studio Gibli is always creating beautiful work out of Japan, and Hayao Miyazaki is keeping the 2D world alive, and it’s so good. It just depends on how you want to tell the story. Right now CG is what audiences want.

Kirill: What is it about CG? Is it the level of detail, the sophisticated look of it?

Pete: I think so. It’s an easier translation to the real world. We can light and texture things, and make it feel like it looks in real world. And whether it’s more cartoony or more realistic, that’s a separate design theory. Because the computer can do that, I think it engrosses the audience and it makes you feel like you’re in that set, or talking with that character. The textures feel real, the lighting feels real, and I think that’s the sophistication that draws the audience to this.

Kirill: And yet nobody’s been able to solve the look of the human skin. It feels like it’s the last big unsolved piece to getting to photorealism in animation.

Pete: That’s always the really tough thing to tackle. There’s really no substitute for human skin. I tend to like CG things that aren’t realistic, that aren’t photo-real. You have to get everything right for it to look exact. Our eyes are so sophisticated. You can immediately tell that it’s off and that it doesn’t look right.

I come from more of a cartoony background where I like to exaggerate and caricature, and I’m not too concerned that the skin doesn’t look realistic. I like to design shapes that are pushed and expressive. It’s more about the story and the emotion of the characters and environments than the photorealistic aspect.

Sketch for “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”.

Kirill: And in stories such as “Madagascar” or “Angry Birds” we might not be looking for the animals to be photorealistic. We’re there to be entertained, and I guess kids don’t care as much either.

Pete: As an audience member, you easily transpose yourself into that world. We’re not concerned that Red from “The Angry Birds Movie” should look like a real bird. We did that on purpose. We made him more anthropomorphic and creature-like. He has a beak and feathers. He’s iconic as a bird, but he’s not a photo-realistic bird. Red had to be appealing and cute because of his anger issues. There’s a great juxtaposition between cute and dangerous. That’s what makes Red a successful character design.

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