BABY DRIVER – STUDY IN PRE-PRODUCTION PRECISION

At the DGA screening of Edgar Wright’s BABY DRIVER, Christopher Nolan (of BATMAN and INCEPTION fame) handled the exceptionally smart Q&A with the near-manic Wright. Nolan’s questions discussed the project’s genesis (some 20 years in the making) and the complex pre-production process, which was told with a certain amount of joie de vivre! Wright, as you’d expect, is a solid raconteur.

Baby Driver's creator Edgar Wright
Writer/director Edgar Wright

 

BABY DRIVER is a… charismatic… film; to categorize it, I’d say it’s an action musical (a musical thriller is a moniker I’ve seen, too). Wright explained how every sequence was written for a specific song — with precise script page counts honed and refined to a given song’s run time! For example, if a chase was married to a song and the song was four and half minutes, then the chase was taking up four and a half pages in the script.

It goes without saying pre-production, production, and post was geared toward making the action-musical numbers work seamlessly. Even dialogue/character scenes were choreographed and syncopated to a song’s time signature, beat, and run time. So, yeah, charismatic is an apropos descriptor.

Throughout Nolan’s questions, Wright shared his methodology; first off, he’s a guy who shares everything with every department head. A project like this doesn’t get pulled off as well as it did unless every single person on the crew is on the same page. And as he talked, what became clear was Wright’s extensive use of storyboards and animatics.

What’s an animatic? A moving storyboard, essentially; they come in a variety of forms (and differ from PreViz). Here’s the one from IRON MAN 3 – The Mansion Attack.

And here’s one from THOR 2…

Animatics help a director with shot grammar, editing choices, and pacing.  When directing — action or dialogue or any element of a movie — you’re the focal point for melding commerce and art into a viable and entertaining form. When you have millions of dollars at your disposal, you need to have the “art” part formalized (with a degree of happy accident improv to make it interesting) so it can be approved of. This can be done quite effectively with storyboards, animatics or previz. Hitchcock and pre-SCHINDLER’S LIST Spielberg were the apex users of using storyboards to convey the directorial vision.

You might think comic books are the closest parallel… but you’d be wrong. The closest parallel in the traditional art world is the underdrawing. When I was studying illustration as a youth, I would marvel at Renaissance-era paintings and drawings. My mind was blown at trying to grasp how those masters did what they did… until I came across the concept of the underdrawing. The underdrawing is where the painter works everything out, makes (and corrects) mistakes, even jettisons ideas wholesale. It’s the foundational working tableau for the artist.

Underdrawing of Joseph with Jacob in Egypt by Jacopop Pontormo
Joseph with Jacob in Egypt, by Jacopo Pontormo, 1518

This bit of knowledge gave me a certain amount of freedom… as a nascent illustrator.

When a film project becomes increasingly complex (i.e., millions of dollars are on the line), animatics or previz is a necessity. Some might argue the “directing” is dispersed over several different artists and creators, but remember the core part of the director’s job is to accept or reject ideas and suggestions brought to him/her by the artistic technicians s/he hired. A skilled and smart director expresses his/her vision clearly enough, so his collaborators bring him/her ideas that fit within the much-discussed thematic vision.

BABY DRIVER was shot in 57 days (with 16 second unit days) and on 35mm, so they didn’t have the time or the resources to shoot an extensive amount of footage for the action sequences… just the pieces they need. Wright joked that the last three days of production was just getting insert shots of pedals, steering wheels, gear shifts, tires peeling out, etc.

[SPOILER ALERT]

Due to the shooting schedule and shooting on film, Wright and his team made certain decisions that had to be cost effective but counter to the traditional methods of shooting action sequences.

For instance, Wright pointed out that the warehouse shootout had no master shot (much to the chagrin of his script supervisor). What they did was map it all out and time it all out to the music, so what was shot was the exact pieces of action required to put together the film as dictated in pre-production by the animatic.

Wright was insistent on having every sequence cut to the music, but he did break his plan a few times. In plotting out the second robbery, cinematographer Bill Pope watched the previz/animatic and pointed out that Wright was going to run out of song. The stunt he wanted the truck to do was going to take much longer in real time than indicated in the PreViz. Wright didn’t believe Pope. However, during the filming, Wright realized Pope was correct (note, they were recording the video feed and sending it to the editor, who was on set) and came up with the solution.

They were 30 seconds over when they got to the point where they hijack the mother and baby’s car on the freeway, so Wright had Baby rewind his iPod about 30 seconds before he continued with the getaway. This was a perfect in-character solution.

EDITING IN REAL TIME

Filmmakers and producers relish that digital image acquisition provides (supposedly) more flexibility with seeing dailies and all aspects of postproduction. However, BABY DRIVER was shot on 35mm (see the Kodak podcast for more details), and inexplicably his editor, Paul Machliss, was able to edit ON SET and IN REAL TIME… perhaps a production challenge that 35mm (and 65mm) projects haven’t had to tackle in a long time (if ever). Yet that’s what was done here!

This is actually a true auteur type of film that I thought we had seen the last of. It’s definitely not a Four Quadrants film (a diktat that has harmed Hollywood cinema for the last decade, if not longer)… it’s got Edgar Wright’s idiosyncracies writ large all over the film. And that in itself was a delight, regardless if you enjoy his voice or not. Sure, it’s not a $100m extravaganza (probably mid $60s… if the actors didn’t rape the production with the standard quotes).

WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN

The one thing I was wondering a few days after seeing BABY DRIVER was: what would his ANT-MAN have looked like it… it’s clear as to why he walked, Marvel doesn’t work with auteurs; it can’t afford to (and Kevin Feige is, if you think about it, the auteur behind the MCU, and rightfully so… he’s done an extraordinary job).

The last three projects we’ve done have been digital image capture projects, and the format has its merits, but some downside we haven’t wrapped my head around yet. However, 35mm provides a unique and particular aesthetic that doesn’t bleed into hyper-realism (which you have to struggle to avoid with HD, 2K, 4K+ images). We want my films to look and feel like dreams and imaginative stories we are bestowing upon the audience.

We enjoy the color parameters of film and the manner you light your images with film. We are immensely grateful that A-List filmmakers banded together to keep the capture medium relevant.

There is a certain amount of nostalgia to shooting on film at this point (to be sure), but when projects like BABY DRIVER and the upcoming DUNKIRK are still blowing audiences away with celluloid, we still strongly endeavor to shoot a feature film on 35mm an quickly jump to 70mm and/or IMAX (in the footsteps of Christopher Nolan… need to have that kind of success first!).

 

 

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