Strause, Colin and Greg (Skyline), Part 2
On November 12, 2010, Visual FX masters Colin and Greg Strause (AVP: REQUIEM) will unleash their second film, the alien invasion spectacle, SKYLINE, upon an almost unsuspecting public. For despite an eye-opening panel at this past year’s San Diego Comic-Con and some slight buzz in some of the trades, very little has been mentioned of this momentous film on movie news sites or in magazines. While the story of the film is, by all accounts, a satisfying and engaging tale of survival during the last days of the human race, the story BEHIND the scenes is what will make SKYLINE a watershed moment in cinematic history.
When we last left The Strauses, they’d discussed some of the particulars of SKYLINE’s production (budget, shooting schedule, a bit about its plot), and hinted at some of the technological advances being brought to bear to make their film a significant advancement in movie-making. As we pick up our conversation in this second half of their exclusive discussion with Dread Central, we’ll find out more about how these two young men are changing the way films are being made.
DC: Earlier you said something about the ship sometimes being so big that you can’t turn it if you run into problems. I’m wondering about the opposite end of that spectrum where you can encounter “happy accidents” and it doesn’t take a meeting to decide whether to use it or lose it. Shooting on the format that you are – much like Robert Rodriguez, for example - you can just let the camera run.
Greg: Yeah, it made it so much easier. You don’t have resets. We figured out on AVP that you actually lose two whole days of shooting just doing camera reloads. If you add up how long it takes per day, for how many minutes per reload it is, it actually turned out to be two full shoot days and on a movie, that could turn out to be…
Colin: Three hundred and fifty grand… in the garbage.
Greg: Just on reloading your camera.
DC: And in this case, you were just what, swapping out hard drives?
Greg: Right… and, again with this technology, we had the newest solid state hard drives, each with an hour and a half of footage at 4k. You just turn that fucker on and let it go. We had situations where we wanted to do a series of shots and we could just roll, man. Just go! And, especially if you’re doing a little bit more of the on the street kind of guerilla shooting and you need to be aggressive, you just roll and you get every frame of film you want. We had a ONE DAY aerial photography shoot on this thing. I will put my flag in the ground and claim it was one of the most efficient aerial photography days ever. We got, in that one day, four and a half hours of footage. It was a perfect day. We had overcast mornings so it looked like the whole city was basically destroyed, then, it cleared up so we had a clear sky.
Colin: And then, we had a super clear night.
Greg: Razor clear and we got everything. See, when you’re flying in a helicopter, you only get eight minutes of film then you have to fly back to the airport, land, spend an hour ripping apart the nose assembly and reloading, then getting fuel and flying back. We had an hour and a half hard drive. We were just flying around and letting the thing roll. So, we got hours and hours of footage. I think we shot enough stuff for the next four SKYLINE movies. [laughs] It’s just crazy, but that’s something that, if this were a big movie like a 2012 or some larger film that we’ve worked on, those guys budget in weeks of aerial photography and it’s a twenty-five thousand dollar day to fly up in the chopper. So, we spent the twenty-five grand and we got everything we needed for the movie and then some. They would have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get that same four and a half hours of footage. So that’s where we come back to the budget discussion… How do you equate that? How do you factor in efficiency like that? What all this does is that it changes the way you make movies. It sounds cheesy, but you can do shit now. You don’t need all of these giant mega-corporations to help you.
Colin: I’ll tell you where it also opens it up… You used to have a footage budget. Greg, you’ve probably forgotten about this by now, but…
Greg: I had forgotten about it.
Colin: When we were shooting music videos or commercials, we would be budgeted for eight thousand or twelve thousand feet of film a day. Now say we wanted to do something with high speed, right? High speed was only for the rich budgets because you’re burning through film. Instead of needing ten thousand feet of film a day per camera, you needed forty thousand feet – that’s at ninety-six frames a second – so you have four times the film rate. It’s pretty much a buck a frame. That’s forty grand in film. If you’re going to go a hundred and twenty frames, that’s fifty thousand feet. If you want to bring out two or three cameras, we’re now talking a hundred and something thousand dollars a day in film stock alone. The thing about the digital revolution is we were able to shoot entire sequences in slow motion at little additional cost.
Greg: We had an entire week we shot in slow motion for a big action sequence because sometimes you just want the slo-mo… Now, we can just go shoot it.
Colin: Because it doesn’t cost us a dime extra.
DC: It’s just another hard drive.
Colin: Right. So, again… it changes the way you make movies. High speed, slow motion, stylized stuff… it’s no longer only for the big budgets.
DC: So, is this the way you want to shoot from here on in?
Both [emphatically]: Done!
Greg: There is a litany of technical reasons why the new RED camera blows away film, but… creatively, we already have our next three things lined up. We’re doing all our own financing now. They’re all being shot on RED and the amount of contrast that is stored… The fact that we’re able to maintain all of the detail in the skies and nothing’s blown out and we can push that around as much as we want in Post Production, much more so than we could with film… Four years ago, digital was all about compromises. Film is now the compromising format. We actually have more advantages creatively and technically shooting on the new camera body and they’re only getting better.
DC: And doesn’t the fact that the image is already in a digital format make doing the FX shots easier?
Colin: Absolutely. They’re so good now that, with the top of the line cameras, you can’t tell and if we put a tiny bit of film grain on it at output… There’s no chance of knowing. It is the superior format at this point. We have more latitude than film.
DC: Now it truly comes back to where it should have been all the time and that’s Story.
Colin: I can go into a rant about how insane film actually is… It’s really just a trap.
Greg: If you have a visual FX shot, you have to scan every frame.
Colin: Let’s talk about the trap. First of all, if you run out of film stock on the day, you’re done. You stop shooting.
Greg: The Line Producer says you blew your budget and you’re done.
Colin: If it’s a Sunday and you’re on a remote location, you’re done because you can’t get any more. Now, we just have to copy off the drives and we’re good to go. Secondly, with film, you can’t look at your footage. You have to send it to some other company and they need to develop it. On AVP: R, we had one of the biggest fight moments at the end where the Predator gets stabbed through the chest with the PredAlien’s tail and we lost an entire series of shots because the lab flashed the mag and no one allowed us the time or the money to reshoot that.
Greg: It drove us nuts. Everything that made it into the movie was all the shit that was left over. We literally lost almost two-thirds of the takes. So, you don’t have the ability to develop it, right? You need another company to do that. Now, if you want to work with the footage and cut it in a modern workflow, you need someone with a million dollar machine called a Telecine with an additional million dollars of color processing hardware like a Da Vinci and the switchers, the routers, that whole bay… You need a multimillion dollar room just to transfer your film to a digital format where you can work with it. Think about it… it’s a trap.
DC: So, you guys are what, simply pulling all of your data over onto a laptop?
Colin: Yeah, we just copy the solid state drives over to a series of rated hard drives. The rated hard drives travel around with the First Unit. A copy goes back to Editorial. You’ve just liberated all of your media.
Greg: You have to understand… Studios have billions and billions of feet of film that’s trapped on film and they don’t have access to it. It’s a crazy, crazy thing when you think about it.
Greg: And this is why movies cost a hundred million dollars. You have to spend that much money to go through all of that stuff. The other thing is that then, because you’re not actually seeing the video tap… All that the video tap is on a film camera is a little video camera that’s connected off a prism on the eyepiece. But when you’re shooting, you can’t always see light flickers. We’ve had cases where we were shooting in the hallway and we were like, “Something looks a little weird.” We just do playback right off of the back of the camera. “Hey, look at that… there’s a bad ballast in the fluorescent light.” I can see it flicker at sixty frames a second. I just fixed a giant fucking problem in real time on set because I could actually watch the final footage in real time off the camera. Then, the second thing we had which is pretty cutting edge technology is that we went completely wireless HD on this shoot. So, there are no cables going from the camera to the video sys to our director’s monitors. Everything was broadcast through this latency free, wireless HD system which was designed for sporting events so all of the cameras in a big sports arena could broadcast to the main control room when you’re watching a football game or whatever. We had these guys adapt the technology for us and we had all these rigs custom built and custom software written so we could actually use it for film production. We were literally doing car-to-car stuff where we had our Director of Photography in one car shooting the actors with a wireless transmitter and we were in a chase car sitting next to them in traffic with a wireless portable HD monitor that you literally wear around your neck like a big necklace. We were able to watch and listen and record – because we had a video assist in a portable backpack – everything while we were driving down the freeway at 70 miles per hour. And the whole time, we can see it and talk to the actors and give them direction in real time. As long as we didn’t get like twenty car lengths away and get out of range of the signal, we were fine. Normally, you can’t do that. You have to use these really shitty RF transmitters. It’s super low res and grainy. We were full wireless and HD. And that… was some pretty cool stuff. Brett Ratner came over for some of our pickups a couple of weeks ago and he was like, “Holy shit! I’ve never seen anything like this.” And we were like, “No. This is the new shit!” We were one of the first movies ever to shoot with that stuff and that’s something else that just changes how you do things because normally you have cable wranglers and all of these other people… or just being tethered slows you down. You need a lot more Production Assistants and a lot more crew to move all of the stuff.
DC: So, now all you need is the ability to get one guy and a camera into a space and you’re set.
Colin: You can get away with a lot less.
Greg: We’re going to be able to bring back that Francis Ford Coppola style of just staying in the trailer. You run the wireless HD into the trailer and we’ll phone it in. [laughs]
Colin: In no pants! [laughs]
DC: So what was the biggest obstacle to bringing SKYLINE to the screen?
Colin: Well, not pissing off Greg’s neighbors since he still had to live in the building after we left. [laughs]
DC: Did you have to get everyone’s buy-in in order to use the building?
Greg: Oh, yeah… yeah. We had to get everyone to sign off. We had all the right permits and everything was done at professional standard and all of that. It was all above board and legal and all that good stuff. There was always a stunt coordinator and rigging guys around.
Colin: Someone asked, “You had Eric hanging off the side of a building?” and we were like, “Yeah, but we had the guys who did SPIDERMAN 2 rigging it.”
DC: Yeah, it’s not like this is Thailand. Man, have you seen some of the stuff they’re doing there?
Colin: Yeah… We weren’t looking for insurance claims. That’s not our thing.
DC: Tell me about your cast.
Greg: You know, the casting in general is probably one of the easiest processes because they’d come over to our office, we’d do the casting here, and that was it. We saw a bunch of people and we would make the decision. There was no drama. Eric Balfour is someone we’ve always been a fan of since the Marcus Nispel remake of CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Donald Faison… He wanted to do this thing so badly. He just loves Sci-Fi movies.
Colin: He is the biggest Sci-Fi geek of the whole cast.
Greg: Oh, my god! He could quote every line from every STAR WARS movie. The guy’s crazy.
Colin: It was a cast that did the film because they wanted to do it. No one had a trailer. Everyone hung out together in one of the other apartments we had in the building. It was a whole different vibe. It wasn’t like everyone was hiding in their rooms and it wasn’t like a bunch of divas or anything.
Greg: It was a great team effort.
DC: With someone like Donald being such a Sci-Fi fan, did that ever cut down on explanation time?
Greg: He knew every movie reference for everything.
Colin: I think it helped establish a vocabulary and we had a long running inside joke about telling them to act like Lando Calrissian the whole movie. “You’re like Lando in this scene!” And he got it. You kind of get that vernacular and it really helped streamline the process.
DC: So, the cast came together pretty quickly and everyone worked well together and there were no problems there. I mean, it sounds like you guys had evrything so arranged to begin with that by the time you pulled the trigger it was already done.
Colin: By the way, when we started shooting, we hadn’t even sold our foreign rights at The Berlin Film Festival yet and we had absolutely no chance in Hell of getting domestic. We were literally shooting the movie and this thing could have easily died on the shelf, but that was probably one of the most fun things. It was a hell of a gamble. I know everyone is reading a lot of stuff about the film in the news right now, but when we set out to make this thing we had no fucking idea if it was going to work. We’d obviously dreamed. We had a plan which we were hoping would work and that has worked out exactly the way we wanted it to, but this thing was still a giant gamble. It is a completely independent movie. We could have easily just pissed away our life savings with this thing and it would have never seen the light of day which is something that has happened to many other movies. There’s always a risk when you’re doing this type of thing. SKYLINE is the movie we shot in Greg’s condo and it’s going to look like a giant blockbuster. I mean, it has almost eight hundred visual FX shots in it which is more than most hundred million dollar Sci-Fi movies.
DC: But again… you kept it all in house, so…
Colin: Yes, we’re doing it ourselves. I’m literally sitting on the computer every day making these aliens look good myself. You know what I mean? Josh, who was the co-writer and our Second Unit Director and Camera Operator, is also the guy animating everything. He and I are literally sitting right next to each other doing it.
Greg: I think that is kind of an odd thing when the director and the writer are sitting at computer workstations…actually making the fuckin’ movie.
Colin: Actually working on Visual FX shots. Not telling other people how to do it. All of the look development in the movie, I’m doing. But again, that’s the only way we can pull this thing off.
Greg: It’s a very hands-on thing.
DC: Having your scriptwriters there from the beginning, you knew what was in reach and wrote with that in mind. You knew what you are able to achieve given your resources, location, and cast that you had and all of that was hard-wired into the script.
Greg: Liam and Josh came up with the outline and they presented it to Colin and I. The prime directive in the beginning was, “Look… we’ve got access to my condo and it has two bedrooms, a living room, and a bathroom and a parking garage… There’s a roof…”
Colin: The roof has a beautiful view. The condo has a beautiful view. So we said, “Here’s your set.” It was a matter of location dictating story to an extent.
Greg: Liam also lived in the building for like a year and a half, so he was very familiar with it. One of his roommates and him actually shot their own little short film there in the building. So, they already knew what looked cool. It was really home turf advantage.
DC: So, did you have to build anything in the way of sets?
Colin: There was some stuff we built, but that’s some secret, special stuff.
DC: “Chet Stuff.”
Both: [laugh] Exactly!
DC: Why do you think alien invasion films resonate with the public they way they do?
Greg: I don’t know… I think it’s not so much alien invasion as it is apocalypse, end of the world kind of stuff. Look at movies like 2012, DAY AFTER TOMORROW, or INDEPENDENCE DAY. There’s something about The End that is such a powerful thing because no matter how bad stuff gets – like with September 11th and all those things that seem like the world is going to end – the world does rebound. Humanity is fairly resilient even though we are kind of hell bent on fucking ourselves up. So, when something comes along that you can’t bounce back from, I think that’s kind of a fascinating thing to watch. How would you deal with it when you can’t fight back? What do you do? How do you survive? Either you’re going to make it out or you’re not going to make it out.
DC: And if nothing else, that “ending” presents a microcosm for the macrocosm of Life and Death and that which defines character.
Greg: Right. What would you do in that situation? Are you the hero or are you going to cower in fear and die? It’s that defining moment that’s such an interesting thing about people because sometimes the biggest, strongest people cry like little girls when something bad happens and it’s the other people who really rise to the occasion. It’s kind of fascinating to watch who shines and who doesn’t.
DC: How much Practical FX are there?
Colin: When it made sense to do smoke and steam from places where you’d see it, we tried to do that in camera. Obviously all the creature stuff was digital. We had ADI [Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc – Academy Award winning creature design firm operated by Tom Woodruff, Jr and Alec Gillis and known for their work in the ALIEN / AVP series, STARSHIP TROOPERS, DEATH BECOMES HER, WOLF, and TREMORS] do designs and build maquettes and things like that for creatures. We actually pulled off some really convincing earthquake stuff with literally just having all of these PAs and bottles on wires and people shaking the blinds and the way we shook the cameras and got the actors in sync. Normally, you’d be building a million dollar gimbal.
Greg: It actually worked better than it did in a very big movie I saw recently. I was a lot happier with our effect.
DC: You mentioned ADI … How much did Tom and Alec do? Was it just the creature designs?
Greg: Yeah, they did some really cool creature stuff for us and that was one of more fun processes for us.
Colin: We wanted to reteam with those guys because they were the shining light of the AVP: R experience.
Greg: Just the coolest dudes ever.
Colin: They do what they say they are going to do. They come through. They’re just such solid guys.
Greg: They have the same mentality as we do of wanting to do their own little independent movies. We’re all kind of cut from the same cloth. When we started the creature design process, we were like, “Guys, do you know the first ten designs you do that are so cool, but they get rejected and then fifty designs later, those first ten are what ends up in the movie? What if you could stay with the first ten? Let’s try that.” For the creature stuff, it was probably like Number 3 on one of them and it was like Number 2 on the other one. We were like, “Holy shit, you guys nailed it!” There was just no reason to keep micromanaging them and over-designing the thing. As soon as they got it, we were like, “OK, that’s awesome, let’s see it in clay.” They made this big ass maquette which I’m looking at right now in my office and from there we would laser-scan it and have the digital artist make it eighty feet tall.
DC: I don’t understand why someone would hire people as creative as ADI and then, as you say, micromanage them…
Colin: And not listen to them. These guys are amazing designers. They said, “Give us the design specs.” We said, “Ok, this is how it breathes, this is how it moves, this is basically what it has to do in the movie.” We basically just gave them a paragraph biological analysis of what we thought the creature needed to do and the space in which it had to fit or not fit, and then those guys just went nuts, man. And that’s what they’re supposed to do! It’s so frustrating for them when they do all this amazing work. Even on AVP: R, we had some ridiculous designs, but you have to get them through the machine.
Greg: It’s like the studios go to this super expensive French restaurant and ask for a can of Chef Boyardee. “Oh, people in Ohio…people in Cleveland aren’t going to like that! We have to water it down…”
DC: I’ve heard other FX artists talk about how bummed they get when most of their work – the work they’re the most proud of – never sees the light of day because someone up the chain nixes it.
Colin: We see that all the time even on the Visual FX side. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve worked on these giant movies where literally the top three or four FX look pretty fucking awesome and have our stamp of approval, but we get asked to do sixty or seventy revisions over the next four or five months. Then, four weeks before the movie comes out in the theater, they come back and say, “You know… let’s go back to that fourth one.” And you’re just like, “Holy shit! Are you kidding?” That stuff happens all the time. If shareholders for the studio knew how often that shit happens, they’d lose their minds. It’s inefficient and it’s not the way you should do movies.
DC: You both obviously have the technical aspects of filmmaking locked up, but… Do you consider yourselves more visual directors or story-based directors?
Colin: We’d like to be both. I don’t see them as being mutually exclusive. They’re both important elements of the type of movies that we want to do. It’s like a Cameron movie… You want to have a cool story, but you also want to have the big visual. The most important thing to me is making movies that are fun because, at the end of the day, we’re not making some heady art film.
Greg: We’re making a fun commercial movie.
Colin: We’re making a PG-13, fuckin’ cool, crazy Sci-Fi movie that you’ll want to watch over and over again. One that’s not so deep that it hurts the replay value, but it’s also not campy. While this movie takes itself extremely seriously, there’s no campiness. There’s no weird self-referencing or any of that kind of stuff that you sometimes get in more Summery, blockbustery kinds of movies. This is a deadly serious film, but at the same time, we wanted to have fun. We wanted to be like, “Let’s have a King Kong-type creature stompin’ around…” I want to see that. I want to see some crazy shit. That’s what’s fun for us. That’s really what it comes down to. Those are the types of movies we want to make. It’s also the type of movie our friends go see... Like when eight of us go see something like RAMBO and we’re all high-fiving each other when he starts shooting the fifty cal. at all the people. [laughs] You know, that’s what we like.
Greg: We’re hoping people like this thing. I think it’s going to be different. I think it’s going to be fun and it’s going to be visually epic. I think it’s really going to blow people away. People are going to look at this film and think, “Yeah, that could have easily been a hundred million dollar movie.” That’s really the biggest thing. We’re walking this thin line where we’re this little indie, but then you have Relativity and Universal pushing this thing big time. They’re treating it like it’s The Big Movie and it’s going to look like The Big Movie. It’s just that we did it in a way that I don’t think most people will be able to believe or understand, but that’s because how many directors own visual FX companies? How many have worked on this many films?
DC: So, looking forward… Are there stories you guys are dying to do? Do you have a “wish list”?
Colin: There are a bunch of things we want to do. There’s another script that Liam’s written called, WAR OF THE AGES. And then, there’s another one he and Josh are working on right now that’s another top secret project. It’s a big action Sci-Fi movie that will be fun as hell. The next movie is going to have a lot more of a disaster film / BOURNE SUPREMACY-ish vibe with a Sci-Fi thread running through it, you know? That’s the kind of thing that excites us. The combining of those genres…
Greg: It’s an American Bond franchise with a huge visual idea. We just want to make the kinds of movies that we want to go watch. We’re in our early thirties. Liam is in his late twenties. We ARE the target audience. We’re the people whose asses the studios are trying to get into the seats. We’re their demographic. So, we’re just trying to make shit for ourselves to go see.
Look for SKYLINE in theaters November 12th, 2010.
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