Thursday, July 28, 2011

Brushes With Greatness

Over the years, I've been extremely fortunate to have worked with some of the film industry's best and brightest both in front of, and behind the camera... I've studied them, learned from them and, on occasion, spoken with them.

The other night, I had the opportunity to speak with one of my cinematic heroes - Academy Award winning composer Hans Zimmer.

Now, though he's certainly one of only a small handful of "marquee" composers in the business, the average film-goer may not know the name... but you absolutely know his music. The self-proclaimed "procrastinator" has scored over 100 films going back nearly 25 years!

Have kids? You may know this one. Like sweeping epic Oscar winning films? Maybe this is one you'll recognize. More into romantic comedy? Try this. Or, maybe you're an action junkie... Go here. Here or here. DARK KNIGHT. DRIVING MISS DAISY. RAIN MAN. THE ROCK. The list goes on.

In short, he's absolutely brilliant and he's in my top 5.

So, last night (as I begin to write this), I got to meet him. Not just meet him, actually. We sat and talked... and he offered to get me some of his unreleased stuff. This was, in a word, amazing.

Anyway, it got me thinking about the opportunities I've gotten in my life to meet some of my childhood heroes and, in a few cases, talk with them like I did with Mr. Zimmer.

I suppose the biggest one was when I got to talk with Steven Spielberg about filmmaking. Just him and me. I'll start with that story and circle back around.

I had been working on AVATAR foe several weeks with the exceptional Zoe Saldana (who was so kind to me, by the way) when I head the door to "the volume" (the name James Cameron gave to the Performance Capture stage) open. I heard Cameron talking as he came through the door and myself and everyone else on that stage were well trained to recognize that when "Jim" stepped in, we all snapped to attention.

I looked over and nearly collapsed. Behind him were two more cinematic titans... Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. James announced to the crew that he was going to give the actors several days off so that he could "loan" the stage to Spielberg and Jackson so that they could test drive the technology - it seems that the two director's were toying with the idea of filming a new joint venture with Cameron's Performance Capture technology and they even wanted to use a good friend of Jackson's - a man with previous Performance Capture experience. You can see the results of this test here.

Well. Even though Zoe would be off the next day, you could be damned sure I wasn't going to sit at home.

I showed up the next morning at about 8am and made my way onto the lot at Playa Vista Studios (where Howard Hughes built the famed 'Spruce Goose') and walked through the door to find Spielberg already in the volume. He was running around like a kid in a candy store, holding this kind of steering-wheel looking thing that Cameron and his team of geniuses had created. Spielberg was, for all intents and purposes, operating his own camera... even though it wasn't actually a camera.

To get a sense of what the volume is and how Performance Capture works, check out these two clips (one and two). Anyway. I watched for several hours as Spielberg. Jackson and Cameron ran around shooting tests. On the big screen (a very large television just off the stage floor), you could see a sort of rudimentary example of what your final shot would look like... as you shoot it! Cameron asked his team to set up a 50' crane move for Spielberg who then moved the steering-wheel rig in an arc motion from above his head down to his knees... on screen, the image showed a 50' crane shot that came down to reveal his actor on a tramp steamer of some sort. The image on screen showed a rough sketch of the TINTIN character who would be played in the film by Andy Serkis - and whaddaya know... there, on the volume, was Andy Serkis.

I hung out the entire day, watching them play, experiment, talk and troubleshoot. It was literally watching two of the greatest living filmmakers teach their equal how to use a new toy... and they all became kids again. It was stunning to witness.

Around lunch time, I was standing by craft service. The stage was empty and I thought I was alone. I was just waiting for everyone to come back in... when suddenly, someone was standing next to me. I look up and there he is: the guy who is absolutely the reason I got into film... Steven F'ing Spielberg. I looked around. It was just him and me.

"How ya doin'?" he asked.

I managed to choke out, "Good. Good."

"So... what do you think about all of this?" he asked as he turned to face the volume. I turned around to look at what he was looking at... a big grey stage full of nothing. "Are you learning it all? Do you like it?" He went on.

What do I say? Do I say I love it even though I don't? Gotta say something... anything, for God's sake!

Finally, I answered:

"Well... to be honest, I'm not learning much about it because with Jim, none of these guys have the time to explain anything to me. Besides, I'm not a techie. It's all a foreign language to me..."

"Mmm." He nodded.

"And, uh, do I like it? Uh... no. Not really."

He turned to me. "No? Why not?"

"I'm a kid of the 70's. I grew up on your movies. On sets, props, models and not cg... I even named my company after a character in one of your films..."

"Oh, yeah?" He asked. "Which one?"

"My company is called 'Ravenwood Films,' " I told him. He smiled.

"From RAIDERS," he chuckled... "That's very kind of you."

"Yeah, well. You're the reason I'm in this business..."

We both looked out at the stage... empty. Silent.

"I'm the guy who nearly cried when I heard they were dumping the ILM Model shop, so yeah... I don't really care for all of this stuff. Set extensions... no costumes... "

Silence again.

Then he looked at me. "Well. You know... guys like you will keep all of that alive. Look at me... George has been on me for years to shoot digital, cut digital... but I don't. I mean, this little experiment aside, I'm a purist so... yeah. We'll keep that around. There's room for all of it. That's the good thing."

I then pressed him for info about another INDIANA JONES, to which he just smiled. "We'll see," he said. "We'll see." That's when the crew started to file back in and my hero went on to play some more in Cameron's sandbox.

I surreptitiously snapped a camera phone pic (came out blurry) of the three guys chatting, but I've since upgraded my phone and so that image lives on my old phone in a drawer.

Months later, I would find myself standing on a massive stage at Downey Studios watching Harrison Ford, in full Indy regalia, leading Russian soldiers through the Warehouse from the end of RAIDERS, with Spielberg calling the shots.

Back to Zimmer.

If you follow me on Twitter, you'll know I mentioned talking with him was like getting a free Master Class... and it was.

We talked about how he started. We talked about how he created the score for RAIN MAN in director Barry Levinson's cutting room (!) We spoke briefly of Christopher Nolan and their working relationship.

In the end, I geeked out a bit in front of him. I showed him my computer which contains about 11 1/2 hours of his music and I told him I'd love to get more - especially the unreleased stuff.

2 days later, I received all of his masters for RAIN MAN (of which only two cues were ever released), THELMA & LOUISE (of which only one cue was ever released, and about 34 cues from THE HOLIDAY including some tests with Imogen Heap (an artist I love) who did vocals for the score.

It's rare that anyone in this business keep their word. The fact that he did is huge for me.



  1. amazing! Thank you for sharing this with us. No words except awesome...and...hum a little jealous

  2. I want to get a career in movie-making. Would it be a good idea to start out by doing indie films...? I heard somewhere that movie-making and indie movie-making are total opposites. Is this true? I have only one concern: How do independent filmmakers make money?

    indie film

  3. Hi, Curtis -

    There are a lot of variables that determine the answer to your question. The primary question would be: Where do you live? (Or, are you willing to relocate to pursue this dream of yours?)

    Moviemaking and indie moviemaking (if done right), should be pretty much the same. Though the indies will have far less time, money and toys at their disposal. Keep in mind that there are different levels of what some might call "indie" filmmaking - one guy with a Canon 5D, an onboard mic, a $200 budget and a couple friends as cast might well be considered an indie filmmaker - while someone like me might have 40 -50 crew on any given day, $150,000... so there are a lot of different types of indie.

    You're right to have a concern about making money - most of us indie filmmakers are broke most of the time. But then, we don't really do it for the money.

    In terms of getting jobs, sure, you could probably get a job on a big film... but working on an indie will give you a better learning experience as they're often non-union and you'd get to do a bit of everything on set, which will help you choose a direction for your career.

    Hope that helps!