Catching waves – interview with John Koltai

March 13th, 2020  |  FUI · Interviews

Continuing the series of interviews with designers and artists that bring user interfaces and graphics to the big screens, it’s my pleasure to welcome back John Koltai. The first time we talked was six years ago, as he fielded questions about his work on “Iron Man 2”, “Iron Man 3”, “Robocop” and “The Avengers”. In this second installment John talks about his quest to improve his work-life balance, the meticulous attention to detail that goes into bringing these stories to our screens, the continuing prevalence of holographic elements in live action and animated features, and on finding the right color palettes for his characters. Between these and more, he dives deep into his work on “Spider-Man: Far From Home”, “Thor: Ragnarok” and the recently released “Spies in Disguise”.

Kirill: Since this is not the first time we’re talking, let’s dive right into it. What have you been up to professionally since the last time we talked?

John: Well, the biggest FUI project that I’ve done since we spoke has been “Spies In Disguise” from Blue Sky Studios.

That was pretty significant in that when I take an FUI project, I’m usually hired by a boutique design house that’s hired by the production company. But in this case, Blue Sky reached out to me directly and hired me to essentially be the design company for all of the FUI work.

A lot of times I work on very specific things, like one particular set of gadgets or holograms. There may be a ton of these types of elements in a film and it gets spread across multiple designers and animators. With “Spies in Disguise” I designed and animated every FUI element, so that was quite an undertaking and something I’m really proud of.

Outside of that you, I contributed some designs and animations to the latest Spider-man film, as well as “Thor Ragnarok”.

I do like to break things up and not always do UI design. So I’ve also worked in-house at Showtime branding their original show “Billions”, as well as doing a bunch of Showtime sports promos and designs. Another studio I love working with is Versus NYC, and I did a bunch of short fun explainer animations with them for the NFL on CBS. I also have some very talented friends that run a production company called Human Being and I partnered up with them on a number of their Governors Ball Music Festival recap videos, as well as some videos from the band Turkuaz.

Screen graphics for “Spies in Disguise“, courtesy of John Koltai.

Kirill: Does it leave you time to relax between productions?

John: I try to give myself some time between gigs. The last time we spoke, I was very much in a mindset of grinding and taking on everything. I had a tough time saying “No” to work, so I got a little bit burnt out.

I would say I’ve worked pretty hard on dialing in more of a proper work-life balance now. Right around the time of our last interview I learned how to surf, and that has become a huge part of my life. I feel that it balances the time in front of the box really well.

Kirill: Moving closer to these three features you’ve worked on recently, how does it feel to see months or even a couple of years of work condensed into a 90-120 minute final product? When you talk about what you do with people who are not in your field, how do you convey the complexity and the time scale of it?

John: Well in general I don’t think people outside of the industry really quite understand how much meticulous detail goes into making a movie. And that’s across the board, costume design, cinematography, lighting, script – all of it. I try to always display the work I’ve done on my website, whether it’s styleframes or a process reel, and I think that helps convey the complexity of what I do. And usually it’s the other creatives that understand just how long the time scale of these things are.

Screen graphics for “Spies in Disguise“, courtesy of John Koltai.

Continue reading »

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Brett Jutkiewicz. In this interview he talks about how he chooses the productions he works on, the role of the cinematographer and the hidden complexities of it, the dynamics of working on feature films with two directors, and the technological advancements in the lighting equipment in the last few years. Around these topics and more, Brett dives deep into his work on last summer’s delightfully wicked “Ready or Not”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Brett: I grew up in the suburbs of Long Island, about an hour outside of New York City. My father had a Hi8 camcorder that I would use to make little movies with my friends and as a teenager I started getting into skateboarding and making skate videos. I would always shoot them and edit them myself which at the time involved transferring it to VHS tapes, recording different parts of the tape onto another tape to make a really basic edit.

In high school I started getting into still photography. I did a lot of black and white photography – we had a darkroom in our high school and I took a photography class that made me think more about imagery in general, both as a method to capture and document things but also for the first time creating images that had a certain aesthetic value to them.

I went to college at Boston University and started as a computer science major because I thought it would be good for getting a job, but about a semester into that I became friends with some film students and realized this thing that I was passionate about in terms of photography and making videos could actually be something that I could do as a career so I took an elective film history course just to see what it was about and I completely fell in love with it and joined the film program.

I shot a lot of short films in school and after I graduated I moved to New York City with some of the people that were in my class at BU. I started working in New York and collaborating with them on shorts and became friends with other young filmmakers on the scene at the time. There was a great energy of people being creative and helping each other make films, and around that time the first DSLRs that could shoot high quality video came out, which opened up a new world for making cheap independent films. I shot my first feature about a year out of school, which was “The Pleasure of Being Robbed”, directed by Josh Safdie. It was this super scrappy film we shot on super-16mm with a crew of about 3 people, but it wound up premiering at Cannes and that was kind of the beginning of my professional filmmaking career.

Cinematography of “Lily” by Brett Jutkiewicz.

Kirill: Is there anything particularly surprising on unexpected for you when you join a new production, a new director, a new set of people?

Brett: There’s always something to learn, and that’s what’s special about filmmaking. No two productions are ever the same. There’s always a different challenge. A new person who comes in with a different vision. What is cool is that as a cinematographer I get to collaborate with all these different directors who have different styles and different visions.

After graduating from college I continued working with some of the same filmmakers I’d met there, so it wasn’t an abrupt transition. I worked as a production assistant a few times just out of college, and I remember being totally in awe of the machine of these bigger movies with $4-5M budgets, which at the time seemed enormous. It was interesting to see how complicated it was, how many pieces had to fit together, and how people kept things streamlined across different departments.

Kirill: There are different ways of telling the same story, in words and in images, and everybody has their own stylistic approach to it. When you are choosing your next production, do you want to be aligned on the sensibilities with your major collaborators? Do you want there to be a little bit of a tension in the process?

Brett: A little bit of tension and back-and-forth is good. Right after reading the script and before talking to the director, I always come in with my own ideas, a preliminary vision, and feelings about the script and how I might want to translate that visually. But the director might come in with different ideas and differing viewpoints, so I think you collaborate to distill the best of it, obviously always with deference to the director. I would expect always that there would be some sort of tension and back-and-forth. I think that’s why directors hire cinematographers – to bring their own vision and creativity to the project.

Some directors are a lot more precise about how they want the film to look than others. I’ve been pretty fortunate to work with a lot of directors who are very open to collaboration, and I think that collaboration is an important part of filmmaking in general. There are so many people that are working to create this apparently seamless vision. It’s important to have these different people who have different viewpoints to be able to bounce ideas off of each other.

And a lot of this happens in prep. By the time I get on set and am rolling the camera, it’s definitely important to be on the same page with the director. There’s so much to deal with. The director is dealing with the cast, the producers and the studio. I’m dealing with my crew, the camera and the lighting. It’s hard to take time and energy away from that to resolve any sort of tension or conflict. Obviously there’s a lot of adapting to different things that you haven’t planned for – but having that foundation in prep is really important.

Cinematography of “The Preppie Connection” by Brett Jutkiewicz.

Continue reading »

The beauty of modern mobile websites

February 26th, 2020  |  Design

There are two things common between the websites in these screenshots that I took yesterday.

  1. They are beautifully designed, with great typography, clear branding, all optimized for readability.
  2. I had to install Firefox, Adblock Plus and uBlock Origin, as well as manually select and remove additional elements such as subscription overlays.

The web can be beautiful. Except it’s not right now.

Editing of “The Call of the Wild” – interview with David Heinz

February 25th, 2020  |  Film · Interviews

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome David Heinz. In this interview he talks about the transition of the industry to digital, the evolution of tools at the disposal of filmmakers to bring their stories to our screens, the role of an editor in that process, and whether great visual effects can save a bad story (spoiler alert, they can’t). Around these topics and more, David goes back to his earlier work on the two “Planet of the Apes” movies and the rise of motion caption performances, his collaboration with other key storytellers throughout the process, and dives deep into the last 2.5 years that he spent working on the just released “The Call of the Wild”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself, and the path that took you to telling these stories.

David: For me it’s always been about being sucked into that rectangle that can take you into any place in time and story, and make you empathize with a character who is quite different from myself. That to me is the key, and I’ve had that experience and that relationship with movies my whole life. I was enamored with it.

I remember watching movies since I was a kid. I grew up watching things like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Back to the Future” early in my life. I remember not only being drawn to the story and the characters. I also remember appreciating the fact that I could sit down and watch those films with my family, and we could all just enjoy it and have a good time.

Movies were a part of my family’s life growing up. My dad had a Super 8 camera, and I would play around with it a little bit. And then he got a Hi8 video camera, and I started playing with that. I was filming things with friends, and I would do any school project that I could possibly do as a video or a movie instead of a paper [laughs], even if that meant trying to convince my friends to do five takes of something when they were bored after the first take. I’d then try to edit those pieces together using a VCR and my dad’s camera, pressing pause and record on one and then trying to quickly time out everything.

But it was just a hobby. I loved watching movies and I loved making movies, but I never really thought of it as a potential career. I grew up near Chicago, and there weren’t a lot of people in my family or in our larger circle in that field. There was no precedent in my family for pursuing a creative profession, so I never really considered it.

When I was in high school, Wes Anderson’s first movie called “Bottle Rocket” came out and I just fell in love with it. I had an interesting personal connection to that movie – in a different way than I had with films prior to that. There was something about the specificity of his style of humor and aesthetic that felt so in line with what I was drawn to at that point in my life. It felt like that film was personally speaking to me in a way that made me want to know who these filmmakers were. Who was Wes Anderson? Who was Owen Wilson? Who was Luke Wilson?

That movie came out in 1996 and I was about 16 at the time. And as I read more about who these guys were, I realized that they’re just regular, average human beings. I realized that all the people who were making movies for a living were just people who chose that as their given profession. There was something about it that clicked for me at that moment. I was in that period of time where I was starting to think about going to university, what I might study, where I might go and what I might do for the rest of my life. I really felt like I needed to give this a go.

I ended up going to business school for one year and I didn’t like it at all. I dropped out and I transferred to film school in Chicago. Then I finished my studies in Los Angeles and moved out to California. I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t have any job prospects or anything of that sort. I came out here with a tiny bit of money saved up, hoping something might you know happen.

And nearly 20 years later I’m still here.

Kirill: Is there still anything particularly unexpected or surprising for you when you join a new production?

David: Something that’s vastly different on every movie I’ve done has been understanding the director’s process, respecting that and trying to give the director the space they need for their creative process. Every director is completely different.

Matt Reeves, for example, will sit at the AVID with the editor and will go through every single take from top to bottom. On every single setup, every single shot, every single scene he will work chronologically through the movie. That’s just how he works. He works meticulously and diligently from the beginning to the end. And when he gets to the end, he goes back to the beginning and he does the same thing. That’s Matt’s process.

Other directors are not that way. Other directors would prefer to keep fresher eyes on the cut. They’ll give overarching large notes and then they’ll step away to let the editor those notes and try to implement the changes as they see fit. Then they’ll come back and look at it.

Chris Sanders who is the director on “The Call of the Wild” has an animation background. His process has a lot to do with storyboarding. He will come into the cutting room, and he’ll bring a pad of paper and a set of pencils, and he will be sketching as we’re cutting things. Sometimes we cut those storyboards into the cut and sometimes we don’t. I think it’s just part of how he thinks and how he writes.

Part of my job is trying to create an environment that the director can do their best work in, and every director works differently. That’s something every editor has to honor. It always takes a little bit of time to figure out each director’s process when you work with them the first time.

Kirill: When do you usually get involved with your productions?

David: On some of the smaller movies I’ve worked on, for budgetary reasons I haven’t started until they were just about to finish filming. But usually I start right around the time the film begins first shooting, or sometimes a couple weeks before.

On “The Call of the Wild” that was not the case. I started that film nearly a year prior to any shooting whatsoever, because the main character is a fully computer-generated, animated character. On a normal movie I would get the dailies, see what the actors have done and try to help craft a performance for the main character. But there was none of that on this film, so the planning and the prep work had to be much more detailed than they would be normally.

Chris Sanders the director, Ryan Stafford the executive producer and a large team of storyboard and pre-vis artists were working on the film well in advance of shooting. And they needed editorial help to put all of those elements together and create a cohesive story.

It was a real luxury as an editor to be involved that early. I was able to look at early drafts of scripts and help Chris visualize how he might put a scene together, how we might think about transitions in and out of scenes, how we might create a montage before we’ve ever filmed it.

Going back to your question, that is not typical. But it was a great opportunity on this movie.

“The Call of the Wild”, image courtesy 20th Century Studios/Disney.

Continue reading »