When I first heard that director Shawn Levy was making a robot boxing movie, I’ll admit to thinking it sounded like a really stupid idea. After all, the guy who made Pink Panther and the Night at the Museum movies taking on robot boxing? Um…no thanks. But after sitting in the editing room the other day with Levy and having him show me (along with a few other reporters) about ten minutes of the movie, consider me ready to enter the ring to fight alongside Hugh Jackman.
While I’ll explain what the movie is about and have a lot more details about what I learned after the jump, I want to immediately talk about something that absolutely floored me during the presentation.
Like all of you, when I watch a movie, I can tell when an effect is done by computers and when it’s real. Meaning, when it’s been done practically. However, for the first time in my life, I saw some footage that made me lose track of what was real and what was created in a computer. I had to pick my jaw off the floor after watching it. And Levy told us it was only 80% completed. Hit the jump for more:
Before going any further, if you’re not familiar with Real Steel, the film stars Hugh Jackman, Evangeline Lilly, Dakota Goyo, Kevin Durand and Anthony Mackie. Here’s the official synopsis from DreamWorks:
“A gritty, white-knuckle, action ride set in the near-future where the sport of boxing has gone high-tech, Real Steel stars Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton, a washed-up fighter who lost his chance at a title when 2000-pound, 8-foot-tall steel robots took over the ring. Now nothing but a small-time promoter, Charlie earns just enough money piecing together low-end bots from scrap metal to get from one underground boxing venue to the next. When Charlie hits rock bottom, he reluctantly teams up with his estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo) to build and train a championship contender. As the stakes in the brutal, no-holds-barred arena are raised, Charlie and Max, against all odds, get one last shot at a comeback.”
Trust me, after watching ten minutes of the movie and speaking with Levy, Real Steel is so much more than this synopsis. Also, while I’m posting my thoughts on what I saw right now, later tonight DreamWorks is releasing the teaser trailer on ESPN, so you’ll be able to get a taste for the movie very soon.
The other thing to know is that the movie doesn’t get released until October 7, 2011. Which means we’re still a long way away from the first full trailer and a full court press by DreamWorks. In addition, after hearing Levy talk to us about all the different robots in the film and the different arenas and leagues they fight in, it’s clear he’s creating a world with Real Steel.
But getting back to the edit bay visit.
After talking with Levy for a few minutes, he proceeded to show us the teaser trailer. Almost as soon as it ended, he told us that he really wanted to release the first full trailer which explained more of the story and showed more footage. But the studio reminded him that October 2011 is a long way away and it would be better to start slow.
Another thing he brought up almost immediately was Comic-Con.
While his previous films would feel out of place at nerdapalooza (I can write that because I go every year), he seemed genuinely excited and curious about the event and that he’d finally have something cool to show everybody. He then started asking us about what other filmmakers bring to Comic-Con and if the footage he showed us would be good. I told him the best thing to bring would be a sizzle reel. You can thank me later.
The thing to know about Real Steel is that the production didn’t just build robots in the computer and have animators bring everything to life. If you’ve been reading our previous coverage, you know Levy had built practical robots so the actors could play off them and this way the animators would have to match what’s on screen. This is the main reason why Real Steel impressed me. When we saw a scene of Hugh Jackman standing next to a robot named Noisy Boy, the robot was really there! And when the animators had to bring him to life, rather than having to build everything into the frame like Transformers, it looked like they just animated the parts of the body that had to move. Due to the seamless integration of practical and CGI, the robot’s movement was some of the best effects work I’ve ever seen (at least in one of the scenes Levy showed us. The other scene still needed a lot of work).
Now before you go thinking Real Steel is all robot boxing and it doesn’t have a story, Levy explained that the movie is 70% relationships/characters/story and 30% boxing/action. He even mentioned the percentage is similar to Rocky.
But about that footage…
While Levy had only planned on showing us one of the big fights in the film, he then decided to show us some of the quiet character moments and the sequence that floored me – Noisy Boy being taken out of a crate and coming to life. Since the fight sequence is kind of a big spoiler, I won’t get into specifics. What I will say is the movie looks huge. The scene had what looked like hundreds of extras in an old factory and they were cheering for the robots like they would for a prize fighter.
Also, while I wondered if the robots fought on their own, the scene revealed that each robot has a human handler who can control the robot with a remote like an iPad, or they can use voice commands via a headset. Each robot appears to be very different. This was an area of the movie I thought might not work, but after seeing the footage come to life, consider me sold.
The scene also relayed a lot of info about Hugh Jackman and his son. It’s clear they don’t get along and even though his son has some great ideas, Jackman seems to not want to listen and that costs them.
Another reason I don’t want to get into too many specifics with this scene is Levy mentioned the effects work is only 60% done and they’re still editing. Saying that, the mix of practical and CGI in the same scene is amazing and when this movie is finished, it might be a benchmark of what CGI can do when used with practical effects.
After watching the big fight scene which was around 5 minutes, Levy showed us two smaller scenes and one of them featured some great chemistry between Jackman and Evangeline Lilly. While most only know Lilly from her great work on Lost, Real Steel is going to show everyone that she can be a leading lady. At least I think it will judging by the clips I got to see.
Now while I’ve gone on and on about the footage and my thoughts, I’ve left out another part of this movie which sounds amazing: the use of SimulCam. Here’s how Levy explained it to us:
“You capture boxers in data-sensing pyjama suits. You store the movements of the fights. You then go to a real fight venue, six months later, and when I line up my camera on a real ring in the real world, I’m able to play back the fight that I captured half a year earlier, I’m able to play it back in my camera and on my monitors from any possible angle. What I see is played back and recalibrated to the angle that I choose on that day. So that’s SimulCam.”
The invention and implementation of this new technology is going to allow for some incredible fights in Real Steel and it also allowed him to design everything in advance but still be flexible when filming. I can see a lot of filmmakers using this tech in the future.
And with that, let’s jump into what Levy had to say during our extended editing room interview. However, since I’ve seen how popular bullet points are, here’s the highlights of what I learned while there:
- Danny Elfman is scoring the movie
- Levy wants to leave some scenes without any score because the fights will be loud and each one will have different music. Also, you can’t have the volume turned up all the time, you need to have some quiet moments
- The music will be a mix of hip hop and electronica
- No 3D release. They thought about it, but it’s not happening. The movie will be released in IMAX
- When asked about the tone, Levy said he’s trying to make “a fucking cool movie”
- There are 5 major fight scenes and each one is between 2 and a half to 10 minutes. The film also has 2 fight montages
- Levy recently showed 40 minutes to Steven Spielberg (who is producing)
- Sugar Ray Leonard is a fight consultant
- Jackman and Lilly seem excited to go to Comic-Con next summer
- The movie will be finished in May
- Says “there’s no shot in the teaser that I’m not really happy with.” Meaning the effects
- Describes “every punch is a car crash” and he’s concerned about “sonic exhaustion”
- Every robot will have an internal sound presence (a hum). Like the way Darth Vader has a sound when he’s just standing there
- When I walked into the building, I saw Tom Morello (from Rage Against the Machine) walking out. Levy says Morello is going to do some of the music and he “looked at five different scenes with Tom.”
- Crystal Method is coming in next week to see some footage and might do some of the music
- Every fight will have its own song/sound and he’s reaching out to a lot of musicians and hip hop artists
- Says Real Steel has “benefitted mostly from Avatar.” He’s talking about the tech used to bring the movie to life
While I’ve definitely been critical of Shawn Levy in the past, I think Real Steel looks really cool and if they’re able to pull off the effects, this is a movie that’s going to surprise everyone. Also, while Levy has been stuck doing family comedies and kids films, Real Steel looks like a winning ticket into becoming a director that fanboys want directing their movies. I know, I know–you think I’ve drank the Kool Aid and have no idea what I’m talking about. You’re just going to have to trust me for now, as the footage I’ve seen looked awesome and they have a great story and cast. Next year at Comic-Con, when Levy shows off a sizzle real that brings the house down, remember this article.
Here’s the interview. If you have the time, I recommend listening to the audio as Levy is one of those directors that’s filled with energy and it’s cool to hear his enthusiasm for the project.
(First clip plays. It’s a fight between Noisy Boy and another robot. We get to see how the practical and CGI will mix together and how the world of Real Steel is gritty and real. Not some ideal future. Introduced to Hugh Jackman and his son. They don’t agree on how to handle the fight.)
Shawn Levy: It’s not supposed to be high sheen futuristic, it’s actually supposed to be quite the opposite. So while I picked a fight scene, obviously there’s a lot of father/son and Evangeline Lily drama which I can show you at some future visit, but that gives you a taste of what we’re doing here.
I feel like we’ve just been at a Comic-Con event.
Levy: You know what? Can I be honest with you? Because I’ve never made this kind of movie before, so I’ve never even been to Comic-Con. And Hugh and Evangeline keep telling me, ‘Oh, my god… This is such Comic-Con fodder. We’re going to have such a fun summer!’ Is this the kind of thing they show? That length?
It’ll also depends on whether you want to show a full scene or you might do, like, a sizzle reel…
Levy: A clip real?
A four-minute sizzle reel. But the great thing you have is, your movie comes out just a few months after Comic-Con, so you’ll be, I guess, almost done.
Levy: Yeah. Oh, we will be done. This movie is gonna be on a shelf, finished in May.
Levy: Yeah, we finish the movie in May. I thought it was very amusing when Favreau was very candid in referring to next summer as just… I think he referred to it as ‘murderer’s row’ or ‘suicide alley’ or something because I don’t think there’s a weekend, I know there isn’t a weekend that doesn’t have some behemoth squatting on a Friday. You know what? (Talking to Matthew G Carlson, apprentice editor), Matty I just want to give them a taste of something a little more human. Just get the scene, like… Maybe the first Evangeline/Hugh scene. Because to me, what is interesting about this movie is its combination of relationship naturalism with. It’s like a single conceit movie. The world and the people are very much the way we know them to be, but this sport has evolved. As opposed to a movie where everything feels fantastical, it was really important to me, and I recognise it’s not the first movie with robots in it, but that blend of naturalism in performance, writing and design with the futurism of this sport. That was the idea. And this movie definitely looks like nothing else I’ve made, which was the point. I think also, Evangeline and Hugh are such a fantastic… Their chemistry is so genuine. And also it’s a good balance to all those visual effects. It’ll give you more of the tone.
(Levy plays a clip of Evangeline Lily and Hugh Jackman in a gym. Lily owns it. She’s behind on rent. Jackman is the reason. She’s desperate to get money out of Jackman and he tries to charm her to buy more time.)
Levy: We know it’s being referred to as the robot boxing movie, but truth is, 70% of the movie is the relationships.
I have one question quickly about releasing the teaser trailer now. Does it give you mixed feelings working on a movie like this, where you know the effects are only going to be at a certain level for the teaser, putting it out there in the world and having people judge it on that?
Levy: Yes and no. I think that, on the one hand, our audience, our culture is so savvy now to an assumption that teaser effects are not fully representative of the final product. But in the same breath, I would say there’s no shot in the teaser that I’m not really happy with. Hopefully there were no shots that looked like temps in our teaser. I would say, while I think audiences are savvy enough, I think that the effects work in the teaser is quite a bit more than presentable. I think they look good and representative of the film. The harder thing with the teaser, interestingly enough is, how much to show. And I’ve learned that, I wouldn’t say I’ve made that mistake, but I’ve learned on some of my other movies, like, you always want to show everything that you feel works. But you’ve got to remember – I had to remember – that we’re 10 months out, so as we looked at different shapes for our teasers and trailers… At one point we were going to put out a full trailer now and another in the summer, but there’s the need for restraint… And recognising that the audience can actually care about what the people are going through, you’ve got to go through the portal of ‘what is the sport?’ So as you can see, the structure of the teaser was very much establishing the sport. And really nothing more, nothing less. And so being measured in our appetite for how much to show in teaser as opposed to how much to show in trailer.
I was going to say, you talked to this a little on set, but one of the things that’s great about it is, you have the practical shots, then you cut to the CGI, then you cut back and back again, so can you talk about why that was important to you and how that played into helping the film?
Levy: Well, for instance, the sequence I showed you… There were a number of shots that were real robots. And a number of them that were CG, so the decision early on, which I think I might have mentioned was in my very first meeting with Steven. He said, ‘You know, I recognise that Jurassic Park was a long time ago, but I maintain that building practical animatronics has a value that makes it well worth doing. Even though it can be done, and perhaps easier in computer.’ He advocated strongly for it the very first time we sat down about this movie, and what I came to realise is, it really did two things that were critical: One, it really, really affects performance. There is a reality to the way the actors play the scenes, given that there is a real, animatronic, moving robot in the room. So the level of nuance and realism in performance was higher because we built the real ones, and it keeps the visual effects guys honest. The dozens of people working on this at Digital Domain, they knew that you couldn’t get away with almost photo real, because we had real real in the room. You have real real in the cut every four or five shots, so you have this constant yardstick built into the footage by virtue of there being no real robot there. So it became the standard of photo reality that the VFX team had to match. And so I’d say those two reasons made it really useful.
Levy: You’re right, the advantage of the SimulCam, I’ll just speak to it briefly to reiterate, so you can be allowed… Because we captured real boxers doing the fights, I was able to direct the fights in the first place. Then I was able to see what those fights looked like converted to pre-vis. But what you find when you render a robot photo real is that what looks good in a video game-type pre-vis, it doesn’t always pass muster in the final render. Sometimes we had to add robotic hitches to the movement of our performances. So that’s one thing I didn’t anticipate. Often I would look at a first generation visual effects shot and go, ‘Gotta robofy it more. I love the choreography and I love that I’m into the fight in a visceral way, but let’s remember that they’re machines.’ So one was robofying the movements occasionally and the other was adding weight. So for instance, when a robot lands… Granted, our fight surfaces are steel decks, so there isn’t a lot of give, but accounting for the weight. The third is sometimes, you have to police how fast they can move, factoring in the mechanics of how fast could something that heavy move. And that’s something we’re still playing around with, finding that balance of robotic movement, weight… Those two things. Also the biggest thing, in a weird way, is sound. Just the orgy of sound design that this movie is has been really interesting. I can speak to this more when I can shot you more of the movie, but, like, you see the volume level of one of these fights, because every punch is a car crash. Every punch is equivalent to a vehicle hitting another vehicle. And we’ve all seen other robot movies, so you know that you get sonic exhaustion, so a lot of structuring the movie has been orchestrating quiet, and making sure that you kind of create those peaks and valleys, because if it’s all loud, all music… Danny Elfman is doing the score and we talked about the Evangeline and Hugh scenes, which are sexy, romantic. The obvious idea is you score those kinds of scenes. I was, like, ‘No, we’re leaving ’em dry.’ Because the movie gets so sonically full in its fight venues, that I want the human drama scenes to play in the silences. So we’re choosing to leave those scenes actually simpler, sound-wise. So accounting for sound has been a big part of seeing these robots.
Who is sound designing?
Levy: A guy named Craig Henighan. He was my sound designer on both Night of the Museums, and he just came off Black Swan, and he did Tropic Thunder for Ben, so I’ve known Craig for a number of years and he’s a pretty young guy. I don’t actually know how old he is, he strikes me as being young, but part of the fun with Craig is, looking at these robots and figuring out what is the sound character. For instance, Noisy Boy… I don’t know if I’m going to get in trouble for this… Just a taste… (to Matt) Go to “Meet Noisy Boy,” because I want you to listen… We decided he’s got this kind of, like… You know how Darth Vader has an operational hum to him? So some of these robots, they only make a sound when they move, but some of them have more of a kind of internal sound presence. And Noisy Boy is the one that comes to mind. There’s a specific section that I’ll show you, but we spent weeks just working on the operational hum of one of our 18 robots. (Instructs Matt on where to start the scene).
(Hugh Jackman, his son, and Evangeline Lily activate Noisy Boy. We hear a distinctive sound. We watch as they try and get the robot to respond to their voice commands.)
How final is that footage?
Levy: Those effects are 80%. They’re still doing lighting on them, and they’re still figuring out the way the three dimensions sit in that space can be a little better, but honestly, if I hadn’t done other visual effects movies, I’d call that a final. I’m nitpicking because I know my whole team is nitpicking, but I’ll be honest, when they showed me that, I was, like, ‘That looked fucking awesome! Fuck!’ So that’s 80%. And it’s not like the last 20% will be noticeable even. But obviously everyone working at their individual jobs in the movie want to do it as well as they humanly can. And you can hear the sound there!
From a purely nerdy point of view, what is Noisy Boy’s sound. Is he jet engines mixed with something else?
Levy: Let me… I know that Craig told me a bunch of them and I was, like, that is really good DVD stuff, anecdotal. I’ll track you down and get you the answers before Thursday. I don’t recall now, but I remember thinking, ‘What? You went to the desert and recorded a blender?’ It was weird sounds like that. Because the challenge for any really top sound guy is ‘no library sounds.’ No library sounds, create them all from scratch. Everything out of the box.
I have to ask, was there ever any thought about Ben Burtt?
Levy: Not, I would say a meaningful one.
He has a little history with droids and robots…
Levy: Not a real one. Also, I’m not sure that I could give notes to someone that I revere. That’s a general challenge of directing, giving notes to someone you revere. The other big contribution to this, which most people I show footage to take note of is Mauro Fiore’s cinematography is unbelievable. Because I made clear to Mauro, ‘I want your tech savvy from Avatar, but the look of this is more Training Day.’ And indeed, I think he found a way to do that gritty, saturated world without it feeling polished and cotton candy-ish.
Is this 3D?
Levy: It’s not. It is now IMAX.
Was that your choice?
Levy: It was me, and Steven. To be very honest with you, there were two big factors: One was that we were initially coming out in that week before Thanksgiving where both Twilight 3D and Happy Feet 2 are coming out. And it was in a month where you have Puss In Boots 3D, Happy Feet 3D, there are, like, four 3D movies and I have availability concerns with screens and, again, if the movie was 80% robot boxing, I probably would have pushed harder for 3D, but because it’s really more like 30% robo-boxing and 70%… Not unlike the first Rocky, which is 20% boxing, 80% that underdog redemption story. That’s definitely the kind of structural, the ratio model here. I don’t know that you’re servicing that kind of movie with 3D. So no. But IMAX now, because the good news is, since we moved, we’re no longer coming out the same day as Happy Feet 2, we’re going to get a nice juicy IMAX release in October.
When you say, IMAX, a lot of times with IMAX movies, they will fill up the frame with the robot… Will the robot boxing scenes fill up the entire frame, or will you have those lines in the top and bottom?
Levy: I went through this on one of the Night at the Museums, and I think in the end we filled up the frame rather than masking it. I’ve not yet had those conversations with IMAX. Until I see how it stretches, I’m on the fence. I haven’t even talked about the technical specs.
You have a lot of ways you can play the tone of this – it could’ve been a kids’ film, or it could be a dark, gritty, violent drama. So where are you sitting?
Levy: That’s a good question. I’m trying to accomplish both. I’m trying to make a movie that, on a pure badass barometer, is just fucking cool. If what you’re looking for is a crazy fucking badass robot boxing movie, hopefully the movie has the goods to be enjoyable on that level. But I would argue that even in the most jaded cinephile heart, there beats a humanity and a desire to have an escapist emotional experience at the movies. One that we can admire aesthetically and participate viscerally in. So the goal here, and we’ve had some early, small screenings, what seems to be kind of happening is that you come in thinking you’re going to see a cool robot boxing movie, you don’t expect this emotional underdog, father/son movie. And it’s not one that’s soft and overly sentimental, but hopefully it’s one that’s poignant. So it’s definitely not a kiddie movie, but I’m hoping that it has… I’m trying to think of examples of movies, but it’s always dangerous to compare yourself to other movies, but the goal is definitely to appeal to a wide span of audience members. Genuinely rousing and emotional, but also fucking cool.
You mentioned Danny Elfman for score. But as I was walking in, I saw Tom Morello walking out.
Levy: You’re going to use that? (Laughs) That’s so clever!
I will use anything I can. So I have to ask you…
Levy: Use it. It’s true.
So let’s throw the question out there for songs. What are you thinking about for the different boxing scenes? And I want to do a follow-up and say how many… You mentioned 30% for boxing scenes, but can you put a number on how many different scenes are there or how long, short…
Levy: I’ll do the first question first. If you go to any fight, whether MMA or boxing, there’s a whole musical soundscape to these events. There’s pre-event pump up/psych-up music, there’s fighter introductions, there’s between rounds, so my musical needs are really diverse. There’s the whole sound of Hugh Jackman’s character, which is acoustic-based singer/songwriter, lonely soul, travelling the American landscape. Not unlike, by the way, and eventually we should talk about the Matheson story, because the deeper I am in the movie, it occurred to me to share with you guys how much of the short story is in this movie, in terms of a truly desperate protagonist, who will do near anything for a break, for one redemptive fight, one redemptive moment. So there’s singer/songwriter, guitar-driven stuff for Hugh. But I’d say in the venues themselves that there’s a heavy hip hop quotient. I’m talking with artists that you didn’t see here today… But of that calibre, at the highest calibre of hip hop, both producers and performers, because I feel like there’s going to be a heavy dose of hip hop music and you saw Tom… His stuff. There’s the rage stuff, but then there’s the stuff he’s done with Crystal Method. ‘Name of the Game,’ which is one of the great, fucking… Tom’s work is so horizontally spread that his stuff, to be honest, I looked at five different scenes with Tom. And I show my work to him and he’s like, ‘Oh, no, here I would actually start with some guitar and then let it build and then boom, drop the beat when they come into the arena…’ So it’s just a preliminary concept jam session. It’s probably equally split between hip hop and rock… That’s inaccurate. I’d say it’s more hip hop and even electronic than it is straight up rock. There’s probably one fight out of the six major fight sequences that will be straight up rock. The rest would be… It might be a hip hop track with an angry guitar hook, or it might be, in the case of Crystal Method stuff – they’re coming into the editing room next week – they’re looking at this, because when Noisy Boy gets introduced, that’s ‘Weapons of Mass Distraction’ by Crystal Method, they’re going to look at maybe doing something new for that slot. I think that it’s eclectic because every fighter has its own sound, every fighter has its own soundtrack.
Fight-wise… One, two, three, four… The movie has five major fight sequences, and two significant montage sequences with snippets of various fights. I would say some of the fights are 2 1/2 minutes long, some of them are 10 minutes long. I’ll let you guess where in the movie those running times fall!
So editing is almost done?
Levy: No, what I’m doing is, I’m fine-tuning… My official director’s cut ends next week. But I showed the first 40 minutes to Steven already, and that was profoundly encouraging. It included Crash Palace, which I showed you as the first robot fight, and it played through the next sequence, which is when we discover Atom, our protagonist robot. Which I probably would have shown you, but the studio was, like, ‘Shawn! You’re showing them a third of the movie. Chill.’ So they assured me you guys can come back! Maybe when we go with the full trailer in the summer. But I’m presenting the full movie, I’m going to watch it with the studio in a week and a half. But honestly, showing Steven that first 40 minutes, because I needed to make sure that my instincts for how I wanted these robots to fight and move and be synced up with his own. There was some gut check going on, and we were on exactly the same page, which was encouraging.
Talking of Steven, some of us were in the edit bay for I Am Number Four this morning. And DJ was talking about how Steven’s so good at identifying story beats, working out which version of a scene to go with. What does he bring to you as well, especially in terms of human scenes, stuff you can run past him…
Levy: While it doesn’t skew this young or soft… If you saw that sizzle reel in Detroit, you know there are shades of an ET strand here. This is about, on one level, that kid. That lost, damaged boy that finds a creature that is a transformative relationship for him. I would argue that anyone roughly my age is a filmic descendent of Steven’s to some extent. To be able to get the benefit of the one-on-one has been great, so for me on this movie he was hugely helpful in creature design. And again, Steven will have really tweaky notes, like on Noisy Boy, which you’ve seen, his whole note on scenes was, ‘Look at his hips, his hips are off.’ And there was a whole re-think on his hips and thigh girth. Because Steven’s, like, ‘Look at the size of his shoulders, if he has that much torso weight, there’s no way his hips could support it, the pivot point, central axis with the quantum gimbal…’ I just said seven words I barely understand, but Steven uses them in full confidence! So he’ll get either really macro and go, ‘Noisy Boy’s hips need to be wider and his thighs need to be beefier.’ But then I’ll show him, say, that first 40 minutes and I’ll ask him what he thought of Hugh, how he felt. Does he feel too much like an asshole to this kid? Too cynical? Steven once paid me a huge compliment in an article about me last year, he said something like I direct as if I’m sitting in the audience. And I’ve always felt that Steven’s greatest strength is his audience instincts, which are unparalleled. So if I’m trying to tap any big aspect of him, it’s that. Shall we do one more question?
You said you’ve done some screenings with audience?
Levy: Yes is the answer, but they’re small, like 25-person. I hold them before I show the studio. There’s a very interesting article or symposium to be written on just the real difference between comedy filmmaking and non-comedy. Because, you know, when you work in comedy, you depend on audience screenings to tell you about your movie. When you do a drama, you are challenged to trust your inner voice much more. Because when you put a comedy in front of even a 25-person screening, you know whether it’s working or not. The barometer is overt. When it’s quiet, guess what? The shit ain’t working. If it’s fucking filled with laughter, it’s working. Something like this, you’re really kind of feeling it in the room but I’ve found it very interesting just on a filmmaking level, it’s been such a game-changing experience for me to kind of feel an experience the movie in a much more contemplative, internal way, because you don’t have that clear read from the audience. So I’ve had a couple of internal screenings, I always do that before I show the studio. Simple things, like ‘Do you understand how the robots move?’ You want to get out in front of those questions. Or ‘Does the movie skew too cynical, too young?’ We learned some interesting things and I’ve subsequently tweaked them – balancing the relationship between Hugh and the kid, balancing the relationship between Hugh and Evangeline, how much flirtation do we want, how much friendship? But it’ll be the studio screening and then the big decision of course is always do you preview, because as you well know, within an hour of the lights coming up, the world will know about my fucking not-yet-finished movie. It’s interesting, because I’ve never made the kind of movie that bloggers particularly care about, right, because most of my movies have been made for mostly people who are too young to not have password protection on their computers. I’ve already started talking with Steven and with Stacey Snider at the studio, because we want to learn about the movie and yet it just becomes such public knowledge.
Intimate screenings is the key.
Levy: I think so, right?
If you do 300-people screenings, it’s over. I have one follow-up question. Could this movie have been made without Transformers being made? You have to talk about that, because obviously robots are a big part of it, and maybe they’ve learned a lot though animating those movies…
Levy: The truth is, much of my process on this movie is in making sure these feel utterly distinct. The design of them the feel of them, their movements and even their operating systems. Making sure there’s no Transformers confusion. But there’s no question that I’m making a movie with the sensitivity to what the audience has experienced already and I’m sure that technologically, we’ve benefitted greatly from that. But I would argue that we’ve benefitted mostly from Avatar. Truly. Doing this movie without motion capture and SimulCam B playback, I can’t imagine. So we’ve benefitted from coming after Transformers, but this is so different from Transformers in so many key ways. My debt to Cameron is huge. But you don’t make a robot movie and bury your head in the sand, oblivious to all the ones that have come before. And that’s probably why I’m trying to get the tone as specific as I am, and I keep talking about it, but if you were directing this movie, you would want to make sure it’s its own beast.
You mentioned SimulCam, and we sort of know what it is, but could you explain it so we can write about it?
Levy: You capture boxers in data-sensing pyjama suits. You store the movements of the fights. You then go to a real fight venue, six months later, and when I line up my camera on a real ring in the real world, I’m able to play back the fight that I captured half a year earlier, I’m able to play it back in my camera and on my monitors from any possible angle. What I see is played back and recalibrated to the angle that I choose on that day. So that’s SimulCam B. Pretty precise! I’m not even a tecchie… I am now!
And that’s why you say Avatar…
Levy: Yeah. Because it’s the SimulCam playback… Avatar did it in a few different ways where they were able to play back their captured performances in the created world of Pandora. This movie is significantly different in that we are playing back captured performances in the non-virtual world of this movie. In a real world setting, but an instant comp of a real setting with a previously captured fight. You know that Sugar Ray Leonard was the consultant on the boxing choreography… The fights were… It is funny that one of the funniest moments in that Crash Palace fight – it’s some boxing and some MMA moves and all of a sudden Midas drops down to his knee and does a full-on straight-arm to the non-balls of Noisy Boy. And when Ray came to the boxing gym, he watched it and said, ‘you know what would be crazy, because you could never do it with humans…’ So among the many contributions of Sugar Ray Leonard was the full-on straight right to the balls to Noisy Boy. Which I thought was funny because I’m expecting all kinds of crazy technical boxer stuff and in addition to that, I got the punch to the balls.