BIZ: The Shorts Report: CG and a Good Story Make "Doppleganger" Double the Pleasure
by Tim LaTorre/indieWIRE
[EDITOR'S NOTE: indieWIRE is proud to announce the debut of a new column: The Shorts Report: a regular feature showcasing news, festival reports, and films from the world of short filmmaking.]
(indieWIRE/08.28.01) -- Pan right to reveal a classic diner setting in which a man sits across the table from a young waitress discussing his dreams. They sit in front of a large window, revealing a steady stream of light and a magnificent vista from underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. You think to yourself, 'Next time I'm in S.F. I'll have to check this place out.' Only one problem stands between you and their world famous grilled cheese sandwich: the place doesn't exist. Everything that you have just witnessed, save the table and actors, is computer generated (CG). This gorgeous locale exists only in Mike Horowitz and Gareth Smith's second short opus, "Doppelganger."
"Doppelganger" follows upon the success of the directing duo's first film, "This Guy is Falling" ("TGIF"), which premiered at Sundance 2000. "TGIF" follows the crusade of its young hero to save his girlfriend from floating into a jet engine after the world's gravity has accidentally been turned off. That film, which took 3-1/2 years to complete, has since attended about 40 international festivals (and counting). One could easily mistake "TGIF"'s popularity to the behind-the-scenes story of gargantuan technical achievement, much more complicated than your average short. However, what's most fascinating about "TGIF" -- and now "Doppelganger" -- is not the fact that they are filled with amazing CG landscapes, but rather they illustrate what an effective and liberating tool CG can be when combined with an imaginative visual style and an intriguing story.
"Doppelganger," an L.A. Film Festival world premiere funded mostly by the online film site Hypnotic, was a consciously dark departure from the impressionistic and color saturated world of "TGIF." The goal for directing partners Horowitz and Smith, who met while both attending UCLA, was to show their range. "We didn't always want to be the happy, fun 'This Guy is Falling' guys," Horowitz reveals. "We wanted to show that our style and sensibility could work in different ways."
The new film, which recently sold to HBO, follows the story of a young, successful San Francisco couple, advertising head Brian (Timothy Olyphant) and model Adonia (Rebecca Gayheart), trying to deal with Brian's dark dreams. It seems that every time he goes to sleep, he wakes up somewhere far away -- as another person, but the same person. The same phenomenon happens to his counterpart in New York City -- a poor, nocturnal hotel clerk. Through their dreams, the two Brians become aware of each other, until one of them decides to take action.
You would think that having two directors on a film complicates the overall power structure, but as more and more directing duos appear, the logic is becoming clear. Although there is a good deal of overlap, Horowitz focuses on the writing and performance, while Smith designs the look and concentrates on the technical aspects of production and post. "I don't understand why somebody wouldn't think that two directors would work better, because it's just so efficient," Horowitz states. "Gareth and I have the same vision, the same idea of what we want. [On set], we huddle with the A.D., and then we break and I go talk to the actors and he goes and talks with the visual effects crew and the D.P."
Horowitz had the idea for the film bouncing around in his head for a few years (it was originally called the "The Vincent D'Onofrio Short" because he envisioned someone like him as the lead). After deciding upon the concept, both directors came up with ideas for the script. When Horowitz delivered his first draft, Smith was amazed to find some 30-40 scenes with many different locations. From a design perspective, shooting such a complicated script would have greatly increased the time and budget needed. So at Smith's request, Horowitz consolidated some scenes and edited out others. This type of editing goes both ways. In the concept stage, Smith will sometimes advance a plot point based on a striking visual component and Horowitz will pull it back to fit the story.
The visualization process continues with Smith finding the right locations, but when you're shooting against blue screen and creating CG sets, your location scouting involves a much different process. To fill the screen with an idealized San Francisco penthouse seemingly hovering in the clouds or a dark and dingy New York hotel, Smith used photography as a much more important tool than regular location scouts. "It was very important to explore, through photography and observation, the real-world version of the locations we were designing," he says. "In a way, the 'scouting' trips I went on through L.A. were an attempt to duplicate the feeling of being on location at a film shoot. In addition to design and lighting, I would listen for the sounds that exist in a space, or watch for unique details that could be used onscreen." Not only did scouting for photographs provide design inspiration for the CG locations, but the real-world textures that they captured were actually imported into the CG realm to support a photo-realistic look.
Going into production, all the CG environments were then taken into account when shooting the live photography. "Almost as important as storyboarding is designing the layouts and floorplans of all the sets before the film shoot," Smith says. "Since none of the sets exist in real life, we had to be able to clearly communicate to the D.P., actors and crew where everything should be. For the moving shots, the effects team created animatics (computer generated videos that demonstrate the movement of the camera) to help plan for the film shoot."
The actual film set was quite sparse. "I'm sure film shoots on real locations give the actors and production team much more to go on than a gigantic blue wall," Smith says. "The only cues the actors have are objects they come directly in contact with: chairs, diner booths and doors. The rest of the shoot consists of lighting equipment, camera gear, a raised floor and a blue screen. This can be incredibly confusing at times." Smith explains, "One of my biggest roles on set is to know every detail of what the not-yet-in-existence set will look like and where to place the camera within that set. Where's the light coming from? What's the quality of the light? How long is the hallway? Which way is the huge cityscape I'm supposed to be looking at?"
After production in September 2000, post-production for "Doppelganger" took an additional eight months. "The digital post production process for 'Doppelganger' felt very isolated at times," explains Smith. "It took place in a dark room, full of computers, in a non-air-conditioned building at UCLA -- not exactly conducive to fantastic creativity." And this is why all the pre-visualization process was so important. Once all the 35mm blue screen footage was amassed and brought into the digital environment, all the sets had to be completely fleshed out, digitally lit and combined with the live action.
While it's easy to get hung up on the technical side of a film like "Doppelganger," if one didn't know the story behind it, you most likely wouldn't even notice -- which is the point, really. What Horowitz and Smith's career has shown thus far, and which Hollywood sometimes forgets with its own big CG opuses, is that if you don't have a unique and imaginative story, no CG world that you create is going to make your film any better. The fact that these guys are creating entertaining shorts with CG effects at bargain basement prices, really ups the ante for all short films to come.
[For a entertaining and detailed account of the making of "Doppelganger", please see the filmmakers online journal at the Hypnotic.com web site. http://www.hypnotic.com/hypnotic.asp?content=/doppelganger.asp]
[Tim LaTorre is a regular contributor to indieWIRE, a graphic designer and filmmaker based in New York.]