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CineCoup Exclusive: Art Direction on Zero Dark Thirty: From the Ground Up

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We were very fortunate to have Art Director Ben Collins send us a recap of the sizeable challenges faced during his work on Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. He also generously offers CineCoup teams some of his thoughts about the role of the Art Director and working with limitations.

From the CineCoup Mission Logs file
Production Diary of Ben Collins
Art Director ZD30
Amman, Jordan
London, England

We landed in Amman Jordan on January 4, 2012. From the outset, the most pressing challenge from an Art Department’s perspective was re-creating Osama Bin Laden’s (OBL) Abbottabad compound. How and where would it be constructed? Could it be turned around in 12 weeks?

We knew we would have to fly real Blackhawk helicopters over the structure during filming so we quickly decided to fabricate using block work and concrete.

We tapped open source materials to produce architectural and structural drawings for the main safehouse, guesthouse, prayer room, perimeter walls and adjacent land. Within a couple of weeks we were excavating the chosen site in The Jordan Valley. The perimeter wall varied between 10 and 18 feet in height requiring foundations as deep as 9 feet.

The huge advantage of building in this way (as opposed to a traditional film set) was that its authenticity was without question; a 360-degree composite structure allowing contiguous interior, exterior shooting.

With the Abbottabad compound up and running and the unit heading to Chandigarh, India to start shooting the US Embassy and Pakistani Street scenes, we set to work on requirements for military bases and black sites such as the CIA Detention Center at Bagram and the Forward Operating Bases in Afghanistan.

A fantastic military training facility in the North of Jordan lent itself to a huge portion of these. A vast complex surrounded by desert, the facility allowed us to adapt, construct and dress a wide spectrum of sets over a three-week period. These real elements provided a great amount of coverage over a two-week shooting period and were extended very successfully in the digital world.

With the unit now embedded at the military training facility, the Art Department was able to fully focus on a final two-week push at the compound, maximizing the amount of detail ahead of the intense four-week shoot period. Two UK painters, assisted by talented local crew, were in the final stages of chalking and ageing the exterior. Trees and plants were bedded in the arid surroundings to create the lush Pakistani countryside. An amazing dressing team added a final layer of visual detail that brought the set to life. SFX prepped metal gates for the SEAL team to blow during the assault whilst a separate UK team put final touches to the crane rig required for the Stealth Hawk action overhead. Fortunately, this all took place during the day unlike the majority of the pending shoot.

The final leg of principal photography would take us to London. With filming underway in the Jordan Valley, we turned our attention to finding an appropriate location for the CIA Headquarters in Langley and a set build for the main control room Predator Bay. Although the set build at Shepperton Studios was fairly simplistic, finding a suitable empty office building surrounded by woodland to sell Langley proved tougher. In the end, the location department did a great job and the interior spaces were turned around with crisp mahogany and oak paneling, and additional interior and exterior painted flats which were seamlessly complimented by the dressing department.

Given the timeframe and the logistical constraints of working primarily in a country with a very small film infrastructure, this project was an immense challenge for all concerned. Ultimately its ambition, while tough on a personal level, was thoroughly rewarding.

The role of the Art Director and thoughts for Art Direction on CineCoup projects

CC: How does an Art Director translate a director’s vision?

BC: An Art Director’s job is to translate the Production Designer and Director’s vision, (and on larger projects the Producer and studio’s too). They are all involved in the design process to some degree. That vision might be translated through many types of reference photos, location photos, storyboards, concepts, card models, computer models and animations. Ultimately, they can each tell the story equally and help sell it to those up the chain. Often, initial concepts/drawings will lead to 3D and card models as they are the best way for everyone to understand a three-dimensional space.

CC: At what stage does an Art Director get involved in a film?

BC: The amount of shoot weeks scheduled will normally dictate the amount of prep time given. The Art Director will be involved pretty early on after the Production Designer is on board (once scripts and budgets are ok’d). In the early stages the Art Department really drives the film on and starts to think about all of the elements, aesthetic and logistics that nobody really wants to engage in.

CC: When budgets/resources are really limited – any tips/tricks for indie Art Directors?

BC: Find some great locations and keep it simple. No need to design for design’s sake as so many locations look great as they are.

CC: When not working in your own back yard – any tips/tricks?

BC: Get local talent on board and build a relationship. They know how it works on their turf. Trust them (in most cases) to make local deals and they will hopefully stop you getting taken to the cleaners. Depending on the available budget, a local production services company can be money well spent.

Do you have a question for Ben about Art Direction on Zero Dark Thirty or even Art Direction in your film? Write your questions below or tweet us @CineCoup and we will get Ben’s perspective.

Why Vote Red Horizon? Our Co-writer Ramona Barckert

The Red Horizon team is VERY excited to welcome Ramona Barckert to the team as a writer!

She loved the first draft of the script so much she just couldn’t pass it up…and we’re so glad because her talent is a HUGE asset to the team!

Along with the many honours and distinctions she has earned as a writer, Ramona co-wrote “At Home By Myself…With You” with Kris and teamed up with Kris and Andrea to create Pocket Change Film in 2008.

Kris describes his excitement about Ramona joining the team by saying “It’s really great! Ramona and I have been writing together for over 10 years. We have the amazing ability to pick up where the other left off. It’s almost like we can read each other’s minds…and write the same characters.”

It’s an incredible benefit to have a writing team that is so comfortable working together and has so much respect for each other.

It’s really a magic combination!

Here are just a few more reasons that make Ramona the BEST writer for the job and why you should vote for Red Horizon to win the CineCoup Film Accelerator…

  • Ramona has most recently been a consulting producer for the Emmy- nominated Degrassi (MuchMusic/TeenNick).
  • She was an executive story editor for Wingin’ It (Family Channel), receiving a 2011 Writers Guild of Canada nomination in Best Child & Youth Live Action for her episode, “She Blinded Me With Science.”
  • She co-wrote and executive produced the feature film At Home by Myself… With You (Mongrel Media).
  • She wrote the television movie For the Love of Grace (Hallmark Channel).
  • Ramona has also written for The Dating Guy, How to Be Indie, The Latest Buzz and Smart Woman Survival Guide.
  • Ramona has written five feature screenplays and 30+ episodes of produced television.
  • Her first produced script was the award-winning short film “No Man’s Land” - directed by Kris Booth!
  • Ramona and Kris first met in Central Park. Weird!!
  • One of Ramona’s favourite movies is Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat - a one “room” (okay, boat) story.
  • Ramona loves Firefly, a TV show where everything that can go wrong in spaces…does.
  • Ramona’s first Degrassi episode, “Extraordinary Machine” was submitted for 2012 awards consideration–resulting in an Emmy Nomination for Outstanding Children’s Program as well as a Rockie Nomination for  Youth Program (13+) - Fiction
Preparing to Launch

from the Red  Horizon Executive Producer, Andrea McCulloch…

Things are heating up as we prepare to launch.  And I pause to consider, are we prepared?

You betcha!

Here’s a little bit about why we chose Red Horizon and how we’re approaching the CineCoup challenge:

We chose an idea Kris Booth had just recently started batting around: not the screenplay he’d been wanting to write for 15 years and finally finished last Spring, not the quirky heist movie he wrote with Ramona Barckert, not the heartfelt story of a son’s journey to find peace with the memory of his father.

We knew that when someone is asking you to complete a feature film in less than a year with only 1 million dollars, you have to choose a story that respects these restrictions of time and budget.  When this challenge came along, Kris knew he could make a kick-ass one-set movie within these restrictions - all the money that we’ll save on locations and costuming we’ll put on the screen!

Keeping it minimal is part of our commitment to this experience and to creating a project that can truly be made in less than a year, for under $1 million.

So Kris is writing the thrilling story of a crew of astronauts facing incredible challenges as their dreams of making that first trip to Mars begin to fall apart.  It will be shot entirely on one set with a small cast – making it much easier to manage and budget than a multi-location, large cast script. (Kris is currently writing, so he’s still exploring the world of the ship and those who inhabit it. He’ll have to think around the anti-gravity issue so we don’t blow all our budget on VFX!!)

Since we started Pocket Change Films, our approach to filmmaking has been to only spend the money that’s in the bank.  It has taught us to be creative and resourceful.  We will carry this philosophy throughout this CineCoupe process, so please, keep us on our toes and ask us how we’re “Gettin’ ‘er done”!

My First Film: Leveraging the Online Community, Week 1

by social media strategist Frances Leary

A week ago we launched the Red Horizon social media campaign as part of the CineCoup Film Accelerator, and what a week it’s been. This is my introduction into creating an online campaign for the film world, and I didn’t know what to expect. I must say it has blown my mind…and been so much fun!

In one week we’ve gained 157 Facebook fans, and our content has reached a total of 2,070 Facebook users and had 15,642 impressions.

On Twitter we’ve gained 88 followers in one week. Our posts have reached 6,396 Twitter users and our content has had 12,821 impressions.

Those numbers are pretty good for one week, however we all know that social media isn’t about the numbers. It’s about the people and the conversation…and we have that going on, too.

People of all kinds (filmmakers, actors, sci-fi buffs, friends) are excited about the project. They’re talking about space travel and the possibility of human colonies on Mars, they’re asking questions about the filmmaking process, and they’re telling their friends.

This is just the beginning.

I look forward to a social media campaign that will continue to make our audience more and more a part of our experience and a part of Red Horizon, of the characters on the ROME 500 and the psychological struggles they will face.

In my first week I’m finding so far that movie lovers LOVE being part of the movie experience…and I’m so happy they do! That just makes the online experience that much more fun.

Why We Are Excited to Be Part of the CineCoup Film Accelerator

A word from our Executive Producer Andrea McCulloch…

About this time 5 years ago I was saying to my husband (writer/director Kris Booth), “Let’s just make this film – if all we can pull together is $10,000 that will be our budget, but let’s get ‘er done!”.  A year and a half later our film was premiering at the Vancouver International Film Festival.  We had raised $42,000 to shoot the film through our “pocket change initiative”, using Facebook, a website and word of mouth.  Telefilm Canada joined us in the end with completion funding. (I like to think they were impressed with our chutzpah, or they feared we might prove we could do it without them - either way they were very helpful with a bunch of dough.)

At the time our goal was just “to make a feature film.”  Kris had a number of projects that were stuck in development and none of the usual funding agencies in Canada were coming forth with production financing.  The script came directly out of this goal.  Kris and his writing partner on the project, Ramona Barckert,  wanted to create a story that could be done on a small budget – obviously we wanted it to be a good script, but I’ll be honest, we weren’t trying to win any awards.  In the end, it turned out to be a pretty decent story and audiences seem to enjoy it – and the film did win some awards.

So here we are five years later and we’ve heard that we could do it again, but this time we don’t have to ask anyone for money.  The challenge is to write a script that can be done quickly on a relatively low budget (but five times bigger than the original Pocket Change Film). It’s not supposed to be your dream project, it’s just supposed to get you moving.  You build your audience before you make the film, just like we did with Pocket Change, and let that buzz push you through to delivery.

I’ve read some blog posts lately from people who are cynical about the CineCoup program, and I see their point.  We had many of the same questions.  What kind of filmmaking contest doesn’t require a screenplay to enter?   Part of the prize is theatrical release – could that mean one screen in one town?  What do these people know about producing a feature film?  Can they recognize a good script?  Is this just a scam on hungry filmmakers?

You know what? I don’t care. We had such an amazing experience making “At Home By Myself…With You.” We were first time feature filmmakers with a first time producer. We did it fast and cheap. And we’re proud of what we turned out. And the best thing about the whole experience was that it energized a number of artists who were feeling frustrated and stuck. I expect CineCoup will do the same. So what if it doesn’t result in the best film to come out of Canada in a decade (who knows…maybe it will!)? Goodness knows the many talented artists in this country deserve a chance to feel supported in some small way in their creative efforts.