Characterizing Mr.Storm (and other stories) Cinema Papers #114 1997

Baz Luhrman’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was shot in Mexico, cut in Los Angeles and neg cut in San Francisco. Although there were a large number of Australian crew working on it, it was a feature planned as international and designed for a young American audience. How Melbourne’s Complete Post facility managed to snatch the bulk of the film’s digital visual effects away from the U.S. companies is a story that Chris Schwarze Managing Director of Complete Post and Peter Webb, their Visual Effects Designer, enjoy telling.

It’s also a story that typifies the way that technology has shifted the balance of formerly US biased production power and of how home town rules OK!

True, I talk of dreams.
The relationship that Chris Schwarze and Peter Webb and his team built with Lurhman and the producers of Romeo and Juliet was special, well outside the usual relationship of an effects house with a production. The reason as Chris Schwarze explained was because “We just loved this film to death. From the first time we saw the concept we loved it, and we loved the people working on it. It worked out to be really good for us financially as well, but don’t tell anyone, we would have done it for nothing. It wasn’t like a commercial exercise. It worked out for us creatively, financially and we got a great big credit on the end. It was just great”.

The way that the project began also suggests serendipity. Chris tells how he had a call from Martin Brown before he left for the US. asking general questions about the cost of two minutes of special effects, about the role of the Visual Effects supervisor, with no specific project mentioned. A few weeks later it was Peter Webb’s turn to be quizzed in LA.

Peter Webb:
“I was working at Wunderfilm and they were doing some shots for Batman Forever and they said come to a meeting. It was with Martin Brown (co-producer on Romeo & Juliet with Gabriella Martinelli) . He showed me some storyboard frames, asked some general questions about price, and about how shots might be linked. They wanted to create a cityscape that was a cross between Miami and Bangkok, with the Asian clutter and yet the expansiveness of southern America. He asked about shooting different cities and putting them together and I made the usual comments about “Yes it’s possible, as long as you paid attention to lighting, atmosphere, times of day etc.’ I got back to him with quotes.”.

“I was getting into the lift sometime later and I heard people talking in Australian accents so I said “Hi, you guys sound like you’re Australian” and it was Jill Bilcock who I think, was just finishing American Quilt. They had shot some stuff for Romeo and Juliet in Sydney and they were doing an edit on it to show to Fox who apparently didn’t think that the Shakespearean dialogue would work. The edit was just the screen tests cut together to tell a story, Leonardo DiCaprio was playing opposite a girl who didn’t get the Juliet role and there were some other characters. It looked great, really interesting. I said you should go and talk to Chris Schwarze in Melbourne and Jill screamed and she squealed “I know Chris” and we had a little ‘Australian’s abroad’ get together in the hallway. I showed them the shots we were doing on Batman Forever and had more of a talk. I said that I was coming back to Melbourne to work with Chris, and suggested we work together”.

Too early seen unknown, and known too late!

From the beginning Chris Schwarze had looked at their purchase of the Flame software and the Onyx Silicon graphics computer that it is running on, as a way of getting into film effects. Peter had come back to Australia when he first installed the system about a year earlier and trained Murray Curtis on it. (See Dominic Case’s Technicalities article on Complete Post and Flame in Cinema Papers 102). Although the hardware is up with the fastest around, it wasn’t going to be easy to convince Fox to let Complete Post even quote on the project.

Peter Webb:
“Jill agreed with me when I said that the visual effects should be at least workshopped before the initial cut, because the dynamics of the effects affect the cut. Fox were keen to keep everything in the States, they didn’t even want Baz and Jill to edit here. Fox were hesitant about us doing the effects and eventually said “Well, let them send some samples over”, but they had their own people that they wanted to work with. We bombarded them with fax’s and treatments. We broke all the effects into components, gave them cost breakdowns, creative breakdowns, and concocted shotlists of what they’d have to shoot, even instructions to the cameraman. I constructed 3D models on the Mac and showed them why their storyboards wouldn’t work because they hadn’t drawn them with the right lens angles. But we still didn’t get the gig! The initial six shots in the budget went to Hammerhead Productions in LA”.

“Fox just didn’t know who we were. Working in Hollywood you cover your arse, if you are responsible for a decision that goes badly and falls over… well, you don’t want to take risks. The Americans even asked us to run our output material through different sources so they were covered if something went wrong. They were very careful. If it was me I wouldn’t have wanted to do it in Melbourne either”.

“At that time we were working on the effects for The Emperor’s Shadow and they were shooting Romeo and Juliet in Mexico, so we just kept submitting and offering ideas. Because Martin Brown had relied on us for that initial technical advice, that relationship continued when they came back to edit here in Melbourne. Jill set up some Lightworks stations and as they cut, they found that there were effects shots needed other than the ones that Hammerhead were doing, so we started to work on the movie”.

Chris Schwarze:
“Jill really wanted to edit it here, because Roger Savage was doing the sound mix. But because Fox were looking at a US release they wanted to have the edit there, so that they could do pre-release testing. They also wanted to have Baz there for publicity purposes. So it was a huge problem for them to even do what they actually did here”.

“They were cutting on Lightworks and conforming the neg to a print and screening the workprint to test audiences. We went ahead and did almost thirty effects at video resolution which they kined and cut into the test screening prints. We were working very closely with them at this stage and when Jill and Baz went back to the US, they started to refine the print and changing the look. Things we’d done needed to be changed and that was when we set up a video fax to send pictures back and forwards so we had really good communications”.

A fax o’ both your houses

The idea to use the video fax, basically a PC with a video card that records JPEG compressed video to a hard drive and manages the transmission over an ISDN link, was Chris Schwarze’s idea. It worked better than he or Webb had hoped. Chris had tested it in Melbourne and although it meant that they had to install an ISDN line, at Skywalker they had existing lines.

Peter Webb: “We would send them a real time motion sequence and a few high res stills along the line at the same time. That way they could check one for motion the other for content. I remember a couple of times when we send something, tell them to go and have a look and they’d ring us and say “Nah, too many clouds” and depending on how long it took me to do the shot, within two hours I could send another test back to them and get the go ahead for the finals. When I was talking to other facilities in LA, they’d say “you’re kidding, we can’t even get our director to drive across town from the cutting room”, so it sounded like it may have even been better than being there”.

“The video fax was really I couldn’t have predicted that it was going to make such a difference, how much easier it was to get things through”.

Chris feels that the process would be an advantage for productions working locally, just getting across town to check things takes time out of your day. Though the quality is low, Bilcock and Luhrman had confidence that Complete Post could do the work at the proper quality. “We’d say is this the look you want? They’d say yes and we could start work immediately”, Chris said.

Peter Webb:
“There were some drastic changes made to the cut of the fight scene because of the audience testing, and Baz made some revisions and they video faxed us back the locked-off cut that we needed for our timings. Because our shots were being cut into it as the storm advanced progressively we didn’t want to have big jumps in the effects action. That was very useful. When Baz went over to London to do the music we sent him stuff over there, as well as to San Francisco”.

“There were a couple of significant reasons that it all worked so well. We had contact with the creative people here at the right time when they were cutting the work together, and we were able to show that we could do the work and do it well. We were also able to suggest things while they were still able to shoot material. We could make suggestions and demonstrate simple things like crash zooms when we felt the scenes needed excitement. We were also able to demonstrate that we could do many things with Flame that would normally have do be done in camera”.

“We did a lot of work in the opening title sequence. We were encouraged to just throw ideas around and test it at video resolution quite quickly. Jill could cut it in and see immediately if it worked. Because Baz was performance driven, he shot really long scenes with a lot of experimentation. It’s not a wide shot, mid shot, close up kind of movie. It was not as if they storyboarded the whole thing, shot it and cut it together. There was a lot of playing around, a lot of MTV type stuff”.

“Somehow Baz convinced Fox to leave him alone while he was shooting and they obviously had enough confidence in him to let him do it”.

Chris Schwarze: “Talking with the producers, they obviously feel warm and fuzzy toward Fox for allowing them to do this film that way. We heard stories of how when they presented the idea, Fox said “You can’t make money doing Shakespearean films” It was looked at like a little art film. They gave him $15 million to do it, which is quite a leap of faith I think, and the virtually left him alone. Baz is the supreme salesman of course, he had a vision and he pursued it. It was a really good team and they just pushed the boundaries, and pushed and pushed. It was a real creative process.

Peter Webb: “Originally there were some very ambitious shots planned. The setting was this mythical Verona Beach, a bit like Venice Beach, a bit like Miami with lots of drugs, guns. Looking festive but with a threatening atmosphere. They found this great location in Mexico with this big roundabout, a plaza and they wanted to have the two houses, the Montagues and the Capulets as being two industrial, commercial giants, like Grollo or something. So they wanted these two skyscraper buildings with the names on top and in the middle of the plaza a fifty foot high statue of Jesus. None of which existed. They wanted to do a helicopter shot that comes in over the statue and establishes the Chief of Police Captain Prince’s offices. Terribly ambitious and we’d worked out how to shoot it with global positioning devices and altimeters, but those were the shots that Hammerhead got and in the end they scaled them right down, into a lock-off shot with what looks like 3D models of the buildings, arranged and lit to match the scene”.

Chris Schwarze: “I can only comment on the Hammerhead effects as I see them in the film but I think we did a wonderful job. People like Jill went way out on a limb for us saying, “Yeah, they can do it”. They obviously had a rapport with Peter and I’ve known Jill for years so I’m not going to tell her that we could do something if we couldn’t. She had faith in us and we’d worked with Baz so we understood his vision”.

“The first shot we got involved in was adding storm clouds in the scene were Mercutio is killed. They really wanted to set up the idea of this approaching storm that when it hits, something really bad happens. Baz used to call this storm Mr. Storm. He said it was just like another character in the film and he worked with Peter to develop the look of these storm clouds and to make sure that they didn’t just take over the scene instead of looking at the action. Because the film is so stylized, he didn’t want the style to take away from the performance and put a lot of trust in Peter to get that balance”.

Peter Webb: “Most people won’t see these effects. Things like the telescopic sight could be a practical or a digital effect but most of it will run right past the audience which is what we wanted. If the effect becomes noticeable, even if you think “Wow, that’s a great effect”, then the audience’s attention has been derailed”.

Technical considerations by any other name

Fox were apparently very concerned about the quality considerations before Complete Post got the first film in, film out. After seeing the result, they then relaxed. Webb explained that he had recommended a scanning facility that he had worked with but they were too busy, and Fox apparently chose someone else for financial reasons. This had lead to some initial problems.

Peter Webb:
“All the scanning was done in LA. There were some start up problems with colour timing but the film in, film out was a Cineon process which is a guaranteed locked off result, and ensured that the negative we gave them had all the detail in it. The Cineon ensures that the neg you put in will be matched by the film you put out. Kodak, knowing film a bit better then I do, claim that everything that is on the original will be on the 10 bit digital file. If you look at a histogram of the negative there is headroom that I’ve never seen taken up. When we convert it to 8 bits for our system we clip that headroom off specifically for each shot and put the digital information back in for 10 bit output”.

Chris Schwarze:
“The resolutions we are working at enable us to do very subtle things. In one shot where Juliet is supposed to be dead, her eyelids fluttered and Peter was able to retouch just that. When I watched the sequence in the theatre I had to ask which shot it was, because you couldn’t tell it from the original film images on either side.”

“In one of the fight shots the dead Mercutio’s chest is moving, heaving with the exertion and the storm. That shot also had a big scratch on the negative right down the middle, so as well as adding storm clouds we repaired the scratch, stabilised the camera movement from the wind and stopped his chest moving. The process is transparent”.

But soft! What light from yonder matte painting …

Peter Webb:
“The signage and branding is just fantastic. they’ve got advertising billboards, one for a brothel with a neon woman on it called “Pound of Flesh”, there’s a Coke sign that says “wherefore l’amour’ written in the Coke script. You can go to the service station and see ads for bullets, the violence is everywhere. One favourite billboard shows an giant bullet head ripping it’s way through the sign and says, “Put more thunder in your gun” and there’s all this torn metal behind it. The graphics are great” .

(The Post Haste courier company “I’ll get a message to Romeo, post haste”, is an example that I feel almost overwhelms the scene with its cleverness. FH.)

“The locations are all named from the play, the ruined theatre proscenium on the beach was built by the production and it’s called Sycamore Grove. There’s a reference to it being where Romeo goes in the play, and it’s where the Montague boys hangout. The storm arrives, the lighting flashes and the fight scene ends. After all this violence, the scene fades to night. I synthesised the storm, replacing the bright blue sky, and added the moving shadows on the ground. The night time scene was a matte painting and I took the day time footage, removed the hard edged shadows, added the street light sources”.

“Mercutio and Benvolio are popping off their guns into the water, just shooting the breeze and we can see the storm moving in as a threat, like the hand of God coming down to punish them, but they are ignorant of it. Eventually when Mercutio gets slashed and dies and shouts “A plague on both your houses” that’s when the storm begins to hit. There was a real storm while they were filming and you can see bits of the set being blown away and the palm trees bending over. Unfortunately there was still a blue sky with the fluffy clouds and although Baz was very happy with the performance it didn’t have the impact he wanted. It was more difficult because it wasn’t shot as an effects sequence”.

This brought up the discussion of whether ‘We’ll fix it in post’, long the cry of the TV commercial producer, has moved on into film. Will it just cover sloppy film making or is it a new creative tool? Both Chris and Peter are heavily on the side of the creative.

Chris Schwarze:
“If you get post production people on set and involved you’ll save a lot of money. Obviously when you are doing a shot that is going to have effects then you should make sure you have all the elements together, but it is now possible even after the film is shot to say “We can enhance this”. We can even do things with lighting that will change the mood. At one point there was a dead spot in what was a high energy scene and we added a simple crash zoom, it made an enormous difference”.

Not stepping o’er the bounds of modesty.

And of the future? Do Chris and Peter feel that we have minimized the problems of distance enough to encourage more overseas production?

Chris Schwarze:
“I think there will be a certain amount of work that we could get from Fox now that they are happy with our work, and a relationship is established. We could maybe even work on a film made entirely in the US and finished there, but I don’t hold out much chance of that. I don’t want to sell our work on just being cheaper because the gear costs the same. I think that we should work on the Australian connection, those films that are being finished here even if they are shot somewhere else. I think the inter-city thing is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter if you are in Sydney, Brisbane or Melbourne. There’s also the productions that are shot here and would be taken back that we could provide a production supervisor on and be on site to help. There’s great people like Roger Savage here, and our labs are good and a production could really be finished here even if they needed to take it back. There’s also a growing Asian connection and our local work”.

“There’s a 13 episode drama series we are doing effects on, and another top secret project we are quoting that will keep us very busy if it happens. The Flame is good because we can do other work on it such as commercials but film is really our passion”.

Peter Webb:
“I’m so proud to have worked on Romeo and Juliet. Other films I worked on have been a technical challenge, but this one is just a lovely emotional film and although I’ve seen the completed film four times, I was really distressed when I came to Melbourne because it wasn’t going to be released here until March (the release is now Boxing day Australia wide). I know we were obsessively close to it, but it was like missing a friend!”

Well, I told you this was a warm and fuzzy story but maybe that’s what makes our movies so different. What is less fuzzy is that digital effects for cinema don’t look like they will just recreate the path of the video techniques we are used to, at just higher resolution. Maybe it’s a function of bigger budgets or the bigger creative canvas that cinema offers, but expect to see more visual effects credits on the tail of movies. Special effects on film have been around since Melies but don’t confuse the two. These new digital visual effects run parallel with the work of the cinematographer and the designers, and that’s new creative ground. If you put the right tools in the hands of people like Peter Webb, add a pinch of talent like Luhrman and Bilcock, we shouldn’t be too surprised at the results.

You see, I liked the movie too.

Fred Harden.


The Prologue – a footnote

One of my favourite TV commercial copy lines came from a food spot, shot in Melbourne years ago, where commercials producer Michael Cook, in a standup role in front of camera says “My name’s Michael Cook and I can’t”. That my contact with Peter Webb should be rekindled because of the World Wide Web is only lexicologically fitting. (Although Peter avoids the obvious joke, he does allow that he ‘was suckled by the Webb’)

I’d interviewed Peter two years ago for MM (Australian MultiMedia) when he was in Melbourne on one of his many visits back to his family. Peter was a friend of Chris Waller who designed the print version of MM, and he talked to me about himself and his movie work more as a friend. Very candid and open. The resulting interview was sent to him for comment and he suggested some changes that we stayed up late to make before press. The Quark file that went to the bureau and was printed was the uncut version (and embarrassingly un-spellchecked). I was upset because its publication abused the personal nature of a lot of the candid remarks that Peter made about his past and of his working relationships. No apology seemed possible and we hadn’t talked since.

A month ago, on The Fray, one of the better small zines that you should have book-marked, there was a discussion thread that followed up an article from someone who’d worked at HotWired. The article chronicled his excitement at a job that was gradually changed to disillusion, and at the end he asked if people felt ‘stoked’ or not about their work. Scrolling down I read the following…
“oh yeah ! I love my job. I work as a Visual Effects designer / artist on feature films. Right now, I am completing the last three shots of about thirty five that we are doing for Baz Luhrman’s new film of Romeo and Juliet. It truly is a gorgeous movie and I am very proud to be involved in making it a reality. I love all the small parts of film making, I love how they all come together to make a work that can be appreciated by so many people, over a long period of time. I especially love the craft of Visual Effects, it’s a dream job and I am definitely stoked.)  Peter Webb

I immediately responded by email begging Peter forgiveness, and asking if he felt like talking about the Baz Luhrman Romeo and Juliet which I hadn’t been aware was in production. I suggested it as a possible article for The Weekend Australian’s SYTE. The following day Cinema Papers called asking if I could write up the story of Complete Post’s effects work for the movie. There’s no such thing as coincidence, and I was in Melbourne a few days later.