Exclusive: The Brothers Strause Talk 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.

Both: Absolutely!

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.

The Brothers Strause Talk Skyline Part 2 (click for larger image)