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Immersed in Movies: Zemeckis Talks ‘Flight’ and the ‘Digital Stew’

Immersed in Movies: Zemeckis Talks 'Flight' and the 'Digital Stew'

While “Flight” marks Robert Zemeckis’ return to live-action, he rejects the notion that he spent the last decade wandering in the virtual woods with performance capture. In fact, the Oscar-winning director likes to quote Francois Truffaut in explaining that his movies have always been about “truth and spectacle.” In “Flight,” we get both, of course, with a harrowing plane crash, and a riveting performance from Denzel Washington as an alcoholic airline pilot forced to confront his personal demons when his heroics turn against him. Indeed, Zemeckis maintains that the real spectacle was navigating the dramatic ambiguity of Washington’s crucible.

“It’s like everything I’d been doing the last 10 years was the perfect setup for doing ‘Flight’ in every discipline,” asserts Zemeckis, who made the movie because of the ambiguity of the premise. “But ‘Flight’ has 300 digital shots and we did the movie for $30 million, and so the exciting thing is that ‘the digital cinema’ is just getting cheaper and cheaper. Obviously, you have to know what you’re doing and you have to have some pretty good artists, which I’ve been able to put together.”

In fact, Zemeckis entrusted the VFX to an old ally from his ImageMovers Digital days, Kevin Baillie, who currently runs Atomic Fiction, which was able to handle an escalating number of digital shots in about four months, thanks to cloud rendering. “It’s the New World Order,” Zemeckis proclaims. “That to me is the most exciting [technical] news, which very few people know about, because they seem to be obsessed by trying to keep everything in these boxes. This endless discussion about film is beyond me. And film being obsolete is not a new thing.

So it made perfect sense for cinematographer Don Burgess to shoot “Flight” with the Red Epic digital camera. For one thing, it would’ve made the plane crash a lot more expensive and unwieldy to shoot with a film camera, necessitating a much bigger cockpit set to accommodate all the equipment.

“What makes me chuckle is that the phoniest thing you’ve ever seen on a movie set is the close-up. It’s the most unnatural, completely technical thing that you can do. Yet it’s revered as this natural thing. But it’s this special effect. And, by the way, it’s completely artificial to do.”

Yet one of “Flight’s” most suspenseful moments is a close-up of Washington being tempted by a tiny bottle of vodka in a hotel room. And Zemeckis amps up the Hitchcockian moment with hyper-real stylization, shooting with great depth of field and at 48 fps. So there’s no need to ask him where he stands in the higher frame rate debate. “In the digital realm you can adjust it to anything that you need,” Zemeckis contends. “And you can just ramp the shot so that in the perfect compositional moment you can lengthen or shorten it so that you can make the cut on the music beat. It’s just wonderful to make these images so pliable.”

However, Zemeckis’ proudest moment is a philosophical conversation in a hospital stairwell between Washington, a recovering substance abuser (Kelly Reilly) who he befriends, and a cancer patient (James Badge Dale). The quiet bonding comes out of nowhere from some one-act play and represents the longest and most sublime scene in the director’s career.

“It’s funny: all these people have been talking as if I’ve been retired for 10 years. But what I’ve been doing is theater workshop. I was toned to step in with this fantastic cast,” he says.

But what of performance capture and the whole 3-D and virtual production revolution that Zemeckis helped usher in with “The Polar Express”? “I think it’s a giant digital stew and it’s just gonna end up being moving images and nobody’s gonna care where they came from and how they were created,” Zemeckis suggests. “It’s all going to go back to storytelling. It’s going to be a live-action component where you create the image using a lens coupled with another virtual component where it’s all completely done in the computer; portions of practical sets with digitally painted augmentation; and painted on lighting. One of the things you can do now is you can shoot someone in a Mova suit in the real light with the other person.

“The bad news is that you’re only going to be limited by your imagination. And the good news is that everything is going to come back to the writing. The thing about the digital revolution is that it liberates everything. Now you have to be careful that you don’t get sloppy.

“I’ve got a backlog of ideas that are simmering [including an immersive portrayal of ‘Man on Wire’s’ Philippe Petit and his balletic conquest of the Twin Towers]. Performance capture is going to be perfected — it’s just a matter of more computing power. My concern about the Internet is that the immediacy and worldwide scale will stifle innovation. Somebody can piss on something new without even giving anybody a chance to work out a few bugs. People will be vilified on the world stage because it’s not perfect.”

It’s reassuring to hear that Zemeckis won’t be stifled from mixing it up in the digital stew.


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