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ACES MATTER - The Academy's Color Management Standard Belongs on Producers' Radar

Posted By Michael Goldman, Monday, March 20, 2017

 From Glenn Gainor’s point of view, the Academy Color Encoding System (ACES) is a topic producers of all categories need to include in their dossier of technical subjects worth understanding for the simple reason that what used to be called “filmmaking’ is now a multi-format, multi-platform art form. Therefore, he suggests, those responsible for assembling the people and resources necessary for generating quality content for delivery on this new industry landscape—producers—need every advantage they can get in terms of literally getting everyone on the same page.

“We’re not just making a movie for the big screen, but for streaming and hard-disc formats and even for high dynamic range [displays],” explains Gainor, a longtime PGA member and head of physical production at Screen Gems. “ACES allows for consistency across many deliverables known today and new ones to come. As more people shoot in a manner that allows greater manipulation in the post-production process, it’s more important to understand the intended look, and that’s what [ACES helps achieve]. It’s like shooting what we used to call a ‘fat negative.’ You want as much information available for the post-production process so the movie can live in all formats.”

So what exactly is ACES and how does it help filmmakers achieve this goal? ACES is the free and open source color and digital file management system that began life as a project of the Academy’s Science and Technology Council about 10 years ago. Over the last two years, ACES 1.0 has officially rolled out as a device-independent workflow management standard meant to be incorporated into pipelines so as to permit color, file, and metadata consistency and control throughout entire productions, from the start of principal photography through final mastering and everything in between.

Andy Maltz, Managing Director of the Academy’s Science and Technology Council and project director for the ACES initiative, says the notion essentially was to come up with what he calls “a replacement” for the long, stable workflow infrastructure that existed across the industry during the film era when film lab methods were typically similar everywhere, ensuring consistency in processing and image quality. During the rise of the digital era, no comparable industry standard workflow rose up to take over. Instead a wide range of proprietary and constantly shifting methodologies became the norm.

ACES, he explains, was designed to put an end to the Wild West nature of digital production workflows caused by the advent of a seemingly endless number of different camera formats by simplifying the management of those different formats through the use of a common color space format to work in. The goal was to enable consistent color management through an entire production so that all principals could be confident they were viewing identical imagery, while future- proofing productions by ensuring masters of such high quality that their properties would be suitable for display technologies of the future—a particularly important topic these days with the emergence of higher dynamic range (HDR) display technology that is likely to only improve in coming years.  

On the technical side, there is a lot more to the various components of ACES, which combined make up what is called the ACES Viewing Transform—the way that ACES files can be viewed on calibrated monitors. The various Viewing Transform components essentially deal with how to convert data to ACES color space, how to apply ACES data to shots, how to render or convert that data and then more or less how to spit it out in the correct viewing format for different kinds of monitors in different kinds of color space formats. 

But the ultimate point for a producer or manager to understand is that ACES is intended to be the digital equivalent of “an original film negative to return to and scan at a higher resolution,” in the words of Lori McCreary, CEO of Revelations Entertainment and currently serving as one of the PGA’s Presidents. Thus ACES content is intended to be suitable for long-term archiving—content mastered and stored as uncompressed files at the highest dynamic range and color gamut possible, encoded to be unpacked and displayed on any foreseeable display technology. That’s a crucial point in the producing world, McCreary suggests.

“Today we typically capture at higher resolutions than we can finish on due to storage and cost restrictions,” she says. “So we finish and archive films in HD, or sometimes 4K, which looks great on current devices. But in five to 10 years, HD could look as bad to us as VHS does on high-resolution devices now. But if the industry adopts ACES and captures in the highest resolution available and archives in this resolution-independent way, this is our best solution to ensure that our content is future-proof, that it will look as good in the future as it does today.”

As noted, the technical nuances surrounding ACES—what it is (basically a suite of image-encoding specifications or “bits” of the picture; the various transform definitions and guidelines, what most people more commonly think of as look-up tables or LUTs; and various other tools) and what it is not (a software application or required or forced “look” to be applied to content, taking creative control away from filmmakers) can be confusing to those outside of the technical disciplines. And while some producers, like Gainor, supervise post-production and are keenly aware of these kinds of technical issues, many other producers, of course, train their focus in other areas and do not have, or for that matter, need or wish to have that level of technical expertise. This begs the question, “What is the proper way for the producing community to wrap its arms around the ACES initiative and figure out its proper role in their daily work?”

“Does every producer need an intimate working knowledge of ACES? No more than they typically needed to know how to thread a film camera back in the film days or know how to operate a color correction system,” says Maltz. “But they do need sufficient knowledge to be able to hire the right people. So they need the same level of understanding they need to hire cinematographers and colorists and everyone else. They need to know how to ask the right questions when a workflow is presented to them. As with anything else related to a producer’s work, it can be boiled down to knowing things that impact time, money and the quality of the product. ACES can touch on things related to all those areas in a positive way.”

Topics like future-proofing, standards, and file management were not major issues for producers in the film era, Maltz adds, because the film-based workflow was steady and standard for the better part of a century, and everybody worked, more or less, the same way. Today however, that has changed, and so producers tend to be more knowledgeable about such topics. In that sense, experienced producers suggest that maintaining knowledge of how ACES can impact productions, as well as of the costs, benefits and consequences of transitioning to an ACES-compliant workflow, pipeline, vendor or facility, is very much in keeping with traditional producer responsibilities.

 “[As a producer], I’m charged with figuring out how to tell a story using cameras and lights and sets and finding the best crew and locations and looks, so that when my studio president greenlights a project, it is in the best form possible,” Gainor says. “[At Screen Gems] we’ve integrated ACES in 10 films now and continue to improve our ACES workflow. We’ve been employing the ACES workflow in every feature we directly produce since we shot No Good Deed [2014] on the [Sony CineAlta] F65 camera. That was our first 16-bit, 8K RAW capture. It was important to start down the path of ACES with that movie, because the new cameras have so much latitude and give filmmakers so many options that we wanted to make sure that decisions made on set by the director and cinematographer were translated with their intentions in mind all the way through the post-production process. ACES allows us to lay down looks in a non-destructive manner—in other words, not baked in, so that all technicians who come across the material, from visual effects craftspeople to color-timers, will understand [the filmmakers’] intentions.”

And that is a key point, because one common concern in the creative community is that ACES somehow “locks in” looks or by implementing it, forces producers to tell creatives how to make their movie. Gainor, McCreary and other producers who have used ACES say that is not the case, and indeed, it was not designed for that purpose. Rather, Maltz describes ACES as being “about the plumbing,” meaning “you can run anything through the pipes that you want—in terms of creative looks, there are no practical restrictions and ACES protects content in a non-proprietary way for the widest variety of display options.”

In other words ACES describes, essentially, how image data from different camera sources can move to a common color space for the purpose of doing color correction, but not for purposes of how you creatively apply that color. The intent is to ensure whatever creative approach is taken, it will look its very best on the highest-end monitors available today and tomorrow. Gainor suggests that in modern workflows, the ACES approach can help prevent productions from being “boxed in,” in fact.

“Actually, there is tremendous latitude the filmmakers can apply later,” Gainor says. “What I love about ACES is that filmmakers have the ability to dial in specifically to what they intend the final product to be but without baking in colors that may not work once the film is fully edited, since you never know if a critical transitional scene needs to be perfected one way or the other.”

As part of its ongoing initiative to roll out ACES, the Academy is offering various resources and events to educate and promote the system’s capabilities to the creative side of the industry. Among other things, they are suggesting that producers follow a series of best practices on ACES-compliant productions. Those best practices include meeting early in a production’s life cycle with all key stakeholders to get everyone on the same page regarding which technologies are going to be utilized and how the workflow will be designed, what the deliverables will be, and discuss and plan solutions for any tools or facilities within the workflow that may not yet be fully ACES-compliant. Dozens of major hardware and software companies and major vendors around the world in all categories are already part of the initiative, and hundreds of feature-film and television productions have already been made using ACES-based workflows. But whenever there are reasons for the inclusion of non-ACES elements in the workflows, most experienced vendors and experts will be well acquainted with various work-arounds. Also recommended is a process of taking time to educate any participants in the process who are new to ACES, building time to test the workflow and pipeline into your schedule, and insisting that all monitors and displays being used by principals to view critical imagery be properly calibrated.

Meanwhile the Academy runs an evolving portal for ACES information at www.ACEScentralcom, where you will find a community forum to post or answer ACES questions, a link to an ACES YouTube channel for demos and information, an ACES event calendar and an ACES product planner list. 

- This article originally appeared in the February/March issue of Produced By magazine

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TAKING FLIGHT - Acclaimed Documentary "The Eagle Huntress" Challenged Societal Convention, The Elements And A Brutally Tight Budget

Posted By Chris Pfaff, Tuesday, March 14, 2017

It was a single image, but its purity and iconic background led to a quest that would have made Marco Polo blush. Most documentary producers start a project with a single story thread that embodies a larger narrative. In the case of PGA member Otto Bell, it was a single photo on Facebook that led to him boarding a plane to Outer Mongolia to chase the subject of his first documentary feature, The Eagle Huntress, which was recently nominated for a Producers Guild Award. The story, which tracks a 13-year-old girl’s gender-busting performance as a record-breaking eagle huntress, the first woman in her tribe’s centuries of training massive eagles to hunt foxes for their valuable pelts, has captured the spirits of audiences worldwide and is a tale of documentarian passion as well.

“I saw a Facebook post that led me to a photo essay on the BBC’s website. That was Asher Svidensky’s incredible photos of Aisholpan, the girl who would become the center of my life for more than a year,” says Bell, who was working at the agency Ogilvy’s branded entertainment unit when he first alighted on the idea of making a film about Aisholpan. “I was so taken with the story of Aisholpan and the photos. I immediately looked up Asher on Facebook to talk to him about making a film.” Turns out his instincts were correct: The journalist who wrote up the piece, William Kremer, later attended a screening at the London Film Festival with his mother. “He told me that photo essay was the most-trafficked page, outside of breaking news, on the entire BBC site for all of 2014,” Bell reports.

“I had been making documentary-style shorts for seven to eight years,” he continues, “and I was finally ready for a project without client interference or ‘brand objectives.’ At that time, I had gotten into the habit of looking at everything I read, or saw, through the lens of a film, even while walking down the street.

“I was profoundly moved by the images that Asher took. They were beautiful—like paintings. There was a more objective part of me that felt they had the ingredients for a good film. Photos break apart for me. I was looking at the background and I saw these incredible stories within the images. Outer Mongolia is the most remote part of the least-populated country in the world, so the logistics of even contemplating a film production were incredible.”

After contacting Svidensky, Bell had a Skype session with him and shortly thereafter boarded a plane to Mongolia. He was filming at the time in Egypt with a cameraman, Chris Raymond, and brought him along with Svidensky in tow.

Bell, who produced the filming portion of the film himself and acted as director, soon found himself in the Altai Mountains in the northwest part of Mongolia.

Producer and director Otto Bell (center) with Aisholpan (L of center) and siblings, as well as cameraman Christopher Raymond (back)

“I said to Chris Raymond, ‘I cannot pay you.’” Bell recounts. “We had been filming a commercial in Cairo, and Chris, me, and Asher went for the first trip. From a production point of view, it’s an unforgiving location. Tough place to logistically set up a shoot. You fly into Ulan Battar, the capital city, from Beijing or Moscow. You land there and you have to wait a few days. Aisholpan’s region is Ulgii—and Ulgii is the provincial capital. Only two flights a week go to this little town, via a twin-prop plane.”  On one occasion, Bell had to leave 200 kilos of the gear in a locked room at the Ulan Battar airport, as the twin-prop plane could not take off with passengers and the gear.

 “The first location was so spectacular—with purples and reds in the sky at sunset and Aisholpan training with her father’s eagle. The eagle is part of the largest species of golden eagle in the world. They have 7 to 8-foot wingspans; they are massive and prehistoric in scale. I thought that this was an exotic setting overall. And of course, Aisholpan has this beautiful presence, with an angelic face and a strong profile.”

Finding the family required driving around the steppe where the nomadic hunters set up their ger, or yurt. The hospitable tribespeople, who are quite used to welcoming rugged individualist tourists and amateur photographers, welcomed Bell with some hard cheese and tea and told him where to find Aisholpan and her family.

“I was hoping that the family would be alright with me filming. I should not have worried, as they are used to having a few intrepid tourists making their way to their door. Nurgaiv, the Dad, was really cool with the whole idea, and he then said to me, ‘Well, we will steal an eagle for Aisholpan this afternoon.’”

Bell had only a narrow window in which to capture the pivotal scene where Aisholpan secures her eagle, as the birds only have a few days after being born before they start to leave the nest.

“I had thought that I would capture this moment, which became the centerpiece of the first act,” Bell recalls, “and I thought I would get a sizzle reel to show to financiers. And then this moment with the baby eagle happened. We had to jump on it. So I went into planning the production and mapping out how we were going to shoot it. It was happening that afternoon. This is where I am happy being a producer and director. It works seamlessly together.”

Things got interesting when Bell and cameraman Raymond, who is afraid of heights, approached the cliff face where they had to capture the eagle-snatching scene.

“Chris wouldn’t climb up the cliff. He had a C-300 camera at the time. I drew out the scene on a notepad. I put Chris at the bottom of the cliff to get my wide shot– my safety–of the whole experience. And the nest itself was shot by Asher with me doing sound over his shoulder with a Xoom recorder. Trouble was, Asher had never shot video before—only stills. I said to him, ‘Just turn your Canon 1-D to video and keep focus and keep it sharp.’ He and I went up the hill with the family and there was this outcrop of rocks and this ledge, and we nearly killed ourselves getting onto the ledge. I found this GoPro camera at the bottom of my rucksack and I put it underneath Aisholpan’s cardigan sweater to get those POV shots where you feel like you’re inside the nest. So in total we shot the scene from three angles. The whole thing was one take —12 minutes. I had the mother eagle circling overhead, and mind you this is our first afternoon filming so we didn’t have our rhythm down yet, we hadn’t worked out the translation flow so we were just purely observing this amazing feat.”

Ben Crossley and Otto Bell prep their drone for takeoff.

After the first visit, Bell realized that he had to capture the landscape of this remote part of Mongolia more thoroughly and called his longtime collaborator, Simon Nibblet, the primary DP on the film.

“I knew I needed a birdseye view and needed to get airborne to show the landscape from above. I had produced and directed films with Simon for about eight years. We have done 10 to 12 productions together shooting in a wide range of locations, from Uganda to Vietnam to Hokkaido, Japan. Simon is a real inventor and a pioneer of drone photography. Years ago he used model helicopter parts to build one of the first drones capable of carrying a RED camera. He made me a 9-meter crane that is based on a ship mast, which folds away into a snowboard bag. That is how we got those swooping aerial shots we got.” 

 Nibblet also helped create a tracking rig out of the aging van the crew used to get around—literally roping open the side door to get an unobstructed view for their Ronin Steadicam rig. In the 300 hours of footage shot, Bell and his team used a hodgepodge of cameras, which ran from Sony A7s to the Pocket Blackmagic to the principal camera, the RED Epic. The team also used a C-300, Canon 1D and GoPro. Principal photography wrapped in February, 2015.

Aisholpan’s victory at the annual eagle hunting festival, where she beat 70 men and set a record in one of the categories, was shot over two days and became a turning point in the narrative of the film, stunning the male hunter elders of the village and the crew alike.

“I had shot two rounds of interviews with these elders, on two different visits,” Bell continues. “Even though there had been a handful of eagle huntresses over the centuries, Aisholpan was unique in her region and her tribe and had outshone everyone else. These elders put on their ceremonial furs and sat down with me, and they would tell me about traditional women’s duties and how no woman should ever be an eagle huntress. I noticed them all saying ‘Jokk,’ which means ‘no’ in Kazakh and built a montage in my mind that ended up in the final film. When she won the tournament, they all came up with excuses for her performance, like ‘Oh, her Dad’s a great coach; her bird is exceptional,’ but they refused to believe she could be a real hunter without having hunted during winter. That was what I needed to capture.”

The crew prepares to grab a tracking shot.

In a traditional sports-related documentary, the film might have ended with a natural moment of victory, in which the athlete holds up the trophy, and the picture fades to black. Bell wanted to ensure that the real victory in his film would be Aisholpan successfully hunting in the bone-chilling Mongolian winter. And as fate would have it, his funds were running out.

“Aisholpan’s major milestones in her chronology dictated my production schedule. I had no choice but to use my own life savings ($80,000) to fund the shoots. I needed to capture the winter scenes, and in addition to knowing how brutal the weather would be, I was suddenly faced with the reality that I had no funds whatsoever to return to do this shooting.”

Bell turned to colleague Doug Scott, who referred him to Morgan Spurlock, who stepped up when the project was most in need.

“I was literally out of money. I had never been in money troubles ever, and I was depressed. I had been carrying this film every day. I was staring at the ceiling, and really worried about finishing it. It was a dark time. I cut together the first 10 minutes of the film and sent a link to Morgan in an email, and he got back to me the same day.”

Spurlock not only brought Bell into his company, Warrior Poets, to cut the film, but also introduced him to financiers and to producer Stacey Reiss as well as Spurlock’s sales agent at CAA to help shop the film. Bell also discovered Martina Radwan, a documentarian who had adopted children in Mongolia and was shooting there, to get scenes of Aisholpan with her school chums and provide some verité footage that captured the quotidian aspects of life in the most remote part of the world.

Says Bell, “Warrior Poets did incredible work on smoothing out footage and doing synched sound. Everything was translated. The nat sound—it took months for us to do. We had a team of people, led by Stacey in Kazakhstan—ten translators whom we fed constant information. Morgan put together a great team, and it was great to have women on what is clearly a women’s film. Sharon Chang and Stacey were fantastic.” 

Spurlock also helped pull off a coup, when Daisy Ridley, already one of the most visible actors on the planet thanks to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, saw a cut of the film before its Sundance premiere and signed on to do the narration. “Daisy Ridley made the film easier for the younger audiences to track along,” says Bell. “She is far more than a name on the poster for us.”

DP Simon Niblett, camera assistant Ben Crossley and producer/director Otto Bell with their 9m, 25kg crane.

With the financing secured, Bell could return to Mongolia to film the final hunt scenes. Shooting was almost impossible during the day where it warm up to minus 25 Fahrenheit, while at night it would go down to minus 40-50 degrees. He had scheduled five days for the shoot; it would end up taking 22. The cold created interminable response times. “You had to wait for warmth so you could get four to five minutes out of a battery or ensure that your hand would stop sticking to the tripod. We would strike every day, from this little village on the Chinese border and go 10-15 kilometers in every direction looking for these blooming foxes, and then when the sun went down, we would race back to the village. We’d sing songs around the fire at night to stay warm.”

Continues Bell, “We could go days without seeing a fox, and we would watch Aisholpan and her father sink into the snow and cross frozen lakes. We would have to run ahead of them in order to capture real moments, and they were amazing to work with, due to their incredible determination.”

The film’s transformation from ethnographic passion project to global empowerment favorite was clear in audience responses, starting with Sundance 2016.

Sony Pictures Classics, which bought the film, has seen results from strong word of mouth. They were not alone in their interest; Fox bought the rights to remake The Eagle Huntress as an animated film.

“Chris Wedge, head of Blue Sky Studios, saw the same photo I did on the BBC site and he started developing an animated version. He heard about our film at Sundance and saw me and said ‘Let’s talk.’ So I am helping provide background for his film. It’s in safe hands to keep Aisholpan’s message of female empowerment in there. I don’t mind whether people see the doc and or the animated version. Whatever guise it comes in, I just care that young girls and boys hear Aisholpan’s message. I don’t care about the carrier.” 

- This article originally appeared in the February/March issue of Produced By magazine

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THE FINAL STAGE - The Dean of Sitcom Line Producers, Vic Kaplan, Reflects On 40 Years On Set

Posted By Chris Milliken, Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Over the decades, producer and PGA member Vic Kaplan has been on hand for some legendary moments in television. From his early days bringing copy to Peter Jennings’ news desk to producing stand-up specials with Robin Williams and sitcoms with Garry Shandling, Ellen DeGeneres and Louis CK, Kaplan has enjoyed a storied career as a producer, filled with iconic and groundbreaking television and lots and lots of funny shows. From his office at his latest show on the lot at Hollywood Center Studios, he shared some reflections on an expansive career in TV production.

Currently producing Disney’s KC Undercover, Kaplan says he has finally arrived at his last show. Ironically, given the breadth of his career, Undercover is only his second children’s show--in the years leading up to it, he produced just about every other flavor of television.

Kaplan began his career in New York, where after graduating from New York University with a degree in TV production (where his path sometimes crossed with fellow students Martin Scorsese and Michael Wadleigh), he began working at ABC News as a desk assistant to Peter Jennings. He recalls sometimes crawling on the newsroom floor during live broadcasts to bring the anchor his copy. Subsequently, he moved on to various live TV productions in New York—concerts, news, soap operas and sports broadcasts.

He admits that at times he wasn’t sure of his trajectory in the early days, remarking that he “took lots of jobs, lots of opportunities, didn’t know what I was getting myself into ... I just wanted to see what it [was] like.” He jokes that in terms of selecting projects, he caught the instant gratification bug long before it became part of popular culture. He’d jump to new projects from week to week and “didn’t have time to reflect” on a direction. Although his early interest was in sports, opportunities pulled him in other directions, “like a great wave.” Fortunately, he found his work in live events to be a useful calling card; so much material at the time was shot and broadcast live or with minimal editing.

Kaplan fondly recalls the work culture of the era. Working in production “was about the community and being able to mesh with others.” Producers we were consistently helping each other in the 1970s— Kaplan often enjoyed the security of having his next job lined up before his current gig ended. He laughs, “I didn’t think there was going to be unemployment!”

His experience in live TV led to producing comedy, which turned out to be a prelude to a career in the genre. He produced the live sketch show Friday’s, the early competitor to Saturday Night Live, which featured Larry David and Michael Richards as well as great music from the era. The show was a perfect fit thanks to Kaplan’s experience producing live TV. But he admits that a live sketch show came with its fair share of challenges, as the volume of material to learn in a week made for some tense days on set. But as he says, “That’s what live TV is about.”

Eventually he made his way to the West Coast after a visit to Hollywood, where he recalls his jaw dropping at the number of shows in production. After speaking with ABC, he worked out a move to Los Angeles after almost going into live sports broadcasting in New York. But LA’s own abundance of live programming provided a good feeling that he could sustain his career.

Indeed his “major calling card” of live television experience opened doors to producing a range of music, sketch shows, late night TV, and stand-up specials in the 1980s. He produced music specials for HBO with bands like Fleetwood Mac and stand up specials with Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Lewis and Dennis Miller. Producing those events, he learned the essential importance of making sure the venue was familiar, comfortable and a place where “you know you’re supported.”

A slew of sitcom pilots also came his way in the 1980s and from those, “the first show to really blossom” was the innovative, genre-busting It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. Kaplan calls it one of the most enjoyable series to work on, recalling that “Garry made me laugh every day.” He also praises the unique nature of the show and Shandling’s artistic vision which he says “was remarkable.” His collaboration with Shandling wasn’t limited to the sitcom; Kaplan returned to produce The Garry Shandling Show: 25th Anniversary Special, a program modeled after The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson specials. On that show, the character Larry Sanders was born.

More TV comedies followed, with sitcoms in the 1990s like ROC, Get Smart and Ellen. Brought on to the second season of Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom as an executive producer, Kaplan recalls it as a show which had “great expectations.” In the third season, those expectations were fulfilled when he produced the show’s historic coming-out episode, “The Puppy Episode.” “There was a lot of trepidation around what [the episode] was going to be,” both at the network and throughout the industry, and  of course, “there was a lot of emotion” on and around the set. But he remains proud of his role in holding the show together during the experience and of the Peabody Award honoring the episode. The producer keeps a framed picture of Ellen and the show’s writers in his office, with the text of the episode’s script on the frame. In an office that’s sparsely decorated, it stands out.

After Ellen, Kaplan continued shooting pilots and sitcoms until landing at Louis CK’s HBO’s multi-camera venture, Lucky Louie in 2006. Kaplan admits he expected to retire after what he anticipated would be something as unique and funny as that series, which he calls “one of the funniest shows ever done.” It looked to be a fitting end to his skills and experience after decades of comedy and live TV. Lucky Louie was, he says, “hardcore multi-camera” filmed in front of a live audience, “with sets that were raw like The Honeymooners.” Unfortunately, Louis CK was a few years away from making his stripped-down conception of the sitcom stick, and Lucky Louie didn’t make it to a second season.

Kaplan admits to coming out of semi-retirement to work on his previous show and KC Undercover. Today he’s producing the final season of the latter series, having a good time working with a collection of writers he’s known since the ‘90s.

Vic Kaplan (center) meets with members of his day-one team,
painter Rick Webb and medic Andrew Spackman, at Hollywood
Center Studios.

Reflecting on his work, Kaplan readily offers some insights into what’s made him effective at the job. He calls it a matter of gathering the right personnel, which in turn provides a good deal trust. “The team that you bring in as a producer,” he says, “the entire crew, people who are fabulous at what they do … [they] help bring your confidence.” A great crew “brings the best to the table and they’re there to collaborate.”

Kaplan is frank but optimistic—a frequent combination among producers—about the challenges that come with producing any project. “Looking back, you go through periods of time where you don’t think you’re going to make it. You think that a project is not working out, and all of a sudden there are these positive forces that all come together and make a success out of an experience that you didn’t think was going to work out.”

Kaplan has seen a multitude of changes in television over so many years. What has changed the most? Beyond the obvious evolution of technology and style, he recalls the benefits that come with a smaller, more intimate producing community, with its culture of forwarding jobs to colleagues when they needed the work. But there are changes that Kaplan readily welcomes, like the fact that a whole TV series can be available at one time; he loves binge watching. Similarly, he is excited about the incredible variety of contemporary content produced over so many platforms and agrees to the notion that we are in a golden age of TV.

Across the ever-changing aspects of production, technology and style, Kaplan views a few things as constant features of successful producing. From multi-camera sitcoms to live specials to projects for the internet, Kaplan calls “enthusiasm and hope” the essential ingredients in producing nearly anything. And of course, another constant is passion for a project—the fact that “You love doing it,” he summarizes and “You hope that it’ll be the next big thing.” As a producer, working with a writer who has created something unique and special, it’s “doubly exciting” when the show does become a hit.

For those navigating their early steps in Hollywood, Kaplan offers a seasoned perspective. “It’s hard to be judgmental when starting out,” he observes. “Opportunities will present themselves in different ways.” As much as anything, he suggests, a career is about being open to fate. “In the end, it’s impossible to know where you’ll end up. It’s about meshing with the universe and seeing how your personality meshes with others,” as well as understanding how you affect your collaborators. And of course, practical knowledge is essential. Arm yourself with a grasp of the basics of producing different types of shows—for instance, what they typically require as far as locations, hours, and personnel.

But there’s no mistaking the centrality that people—the relationships and trust—hold in Kaplan’s account of his own career. “The people that I met carried me through it.” Recounting his trajectory, even Kaplan seems surprised at the volume of unexpected memories of projects and people that continued to pour out--specials, writers, colleagues, moments with colleagues. “There’s a great connective tissue that’s there,” he smiles, “You can’t see it. But it’s there. It’s a pot of stuff that ended up a career.”

This final stage of his career has also brought other unexpected gifts that come with decades of working in the industry. He loves seeing familiar names on credits, like production assistants he hired on Ellen now producing shows themselves, calling it “one of the finest moments, feelings that I have…It pays the job back.”

- This article originally appeared in the February/March issue of Produced By magazine

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STREET LEVEL HISTORY - Producer Vassiliki Khonsari Brings A Documentarian's Spirit To The "Verite Game" 1979 Revolution

Posted By Justine Neubarth, Tuesday, February 28, 2017
I would never consider myself a gamer,” says Vassiliki Khonsari, PGA member and executive producer of the groundbreaking video game 1979 Revolution: Black Friday.

“Sacrilege!” her partner, the video game director Navid Khonsari, teases as he types vigorously at his computer. We are in the sleek, light-filled Brooklyn office of iNK Stories, the duo’s narrative media production studio. In another corner, an employee pops in and out of a virtual reality headset. Vassiliki laughs with Navid, then grows serious. “I think that’s part of my strength,” she says, straightening in her chair. “Navid is very much a gamer and comes from the gaming world. And what we pride iNK Stories on is being able to have this fresh perspective from fresh eyes and being able to push the limitations of technology.”

1979 Revolution is an adventure game set amidst the tense, gripping days of the Iranian revolution. Combining the action of a video game with the narrative heft of a documentary, it’s one of the first entries in a genre that Vassiliki and Navid have titled “verite games.” Players must navigate the decisions that an everyday citizen of Tehran— in this case, an aspiring photojournalist—faced during the civil unrest surrounding the ousting of the Shah and the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The game, available for download in a variety of places including Steam and the App Store, has been nominated for three New York Game Critics Awards, including Best Game of the Year and was named by the Los Angeles Times as one of the top 10 games of 2016.

Vassiliki studied both cultural anthropology and film as an undergrad, which led her to the University of Manchester for a master’s degree in visual anthropology. Following school, she said she was “lured” into the documentary film industry, where she cut her teeth on “bread and butter” pieces for TLC like Paramedics. One of the first feature documentary jobs she landed was as an assistant director of a film about the video game Street Fighter II. The project introduced her to both gamer culture and the “monstrous disasters that can take place” in documentary filmmaking: the film’s sound was stored in a building across from the World Trade Center and was destroyed on September 11, 2001.

Vassiliki Khonsari (center) watches a take for 1979 Revolution alongside team member Richard Peasey (additional writing) and lead cast member Farshad Farahat.

iNK Stories was formed in 2006, and more documentary projects soon followed, including Pindemonium, about the cultish world of Olympic pin collectors, and Pulling John, about professional arm wrestlers. Vassiliki served as a producer and director of photography on the first film and directed the latter. The experience both films provided—that of dipping into an odd little subculture—proved to be invaluable. “Coming from the background of cultural anthropology, it was always very inspiring for me to step into these microcosms,” she says. “These little worlds that people create and organize themselves around.”

Navid’s background is in AAA video game direction, including several iterations of the Grand Theft Auto franchise. After working on both documentary and smaller video game content together, Vassiliki and Navid were looking to access different audiences and observed the tremendous power of games to do just that. Navid grew up in Iran until the age of 10, when his family left for Canada following the revolution. When, as an adult, he traveled to a small village in southern Iran, word caught on that “a guy from New York” was visiting … who just happened to be the only Iranian headlining name in the Grand Theft Auto credits. As Vassiliki tells it, “A line formed of these small kids who wanted to meet him and talk about the game. It was really profound to see what impact games make as a cross cultural platform.”

Early 2011 brought the Arab Spring. As the demonstrations unfolded across the Middle East and North Africa, Vassiliki says “you felt like you were limited” in the documentaries and news stories that were coming out about the vast social movement. She and Navid were searching for spaces where audiences could interact with the real events that were going on around them. “What if you were to throw someone into the fire of revolution?” she remembers thinking. “What would they do?” And the idea for 1979 Revolution was born.

 Vassiliki Khonsari

Initially the idea was met with both excitement and resistance. “Some publishers,” says Vassiliki, “were very open: ‘We are not ready to handle anything remotely controversial.’” But the pair felt that it was the right story at the right time, and they further incubated the idea at the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Lab. Navid’s roots gave them access to plenty of primary sources, and they also felt that enough time had passed to explore what had been, for many, a painful and violent period. “There was a huge exodus that took place after the revolution,” Navid tells me. “So the next generation has been born in the United States and Germany and Canada, and they’re kind of at an arm’s length from understanding. And rightfully so, because their parents had to escape their homeland, so it’s not something that they want to talk about.” A video game, they felt, could be a good way to bridge that understanding between the generations.

For Vassiliki, a first-time producer of a large video game project, the initial step in developing the game wasn’t much different than that of a feature documentary: a huge amount of research and outreach to the Iranian community “across gender, across religion, across political ideology.” But there were plenty of other new skills to acquire. In particular, she says, she had to wrangle budgetary considerations that would have never popped up when shooting live action or documentary, like the unique costs of adding additional main characters. “You have to start with motion capture. You have to design a character build. You have to have the concept art. 3-D design is expensive in terms of memory, in terms of art and in terms of building it.

They also wanted the story world to look as authentic as possible, beginning with the motion capture portion of the design. Initially, Navid wasn’t thinking too hard about the actors that they would be using for “mo-cap.” “I was just thinking of it in a technical way, like no one’s going to see their faces because they’re wearing these spandex suits,” he tells me. Vassiliki, however, pushed for an all-Iranian cast; this paid tremendous dividends, Navid says, when it came to “the nuances, the mannerisms and the details.”

They shot all of the game’s motion capture—the equivalent of a feature-length script—in four days in Los Angeles. Despite the brutal schedule, Vassiliki calls it a pivotal moment for the cast. “Each of the actors had experienced the revolution to some degree in their personal lives, whether firsthand or as echoes through their family. […] And you know, of course there are limited opportunities for a lot of these actors, who are sick of playing terrorists or prophets.” They were later able to use the same actors for the characters’ voices.

The iNK Stories team next turned to the challenge of artwork. In an industry that doesn’t often veer from what Vassiliki calls the “existing template of most games, which is, ‘I’m a big buff white guy with a shaved head and a machine gun,’” this proved to be a distinct challenge. Crafting the “naturalistic look” of an everyday, 18-year-old Iranian who “isn’t super buff” was, in Navid’s words, “a huge responsibility.” Explains Vassiliki, “It’s hard to redirect artists to unlearn what they’ve done so many times over. That’s really the challenge. You work in an industry where people are rewarded for doing fine work in one direction.”

But the possibilities of the project far outweighed the challenges. Vassiliki hopes to continue to revisit history through the lens of the everyday citizen, not just the “top down” overview favored by so many documentaries. And she wants the genre to reach as many people as possible. “Part of our mission in making verite games is making it accessible for the global citizen,” Vassiliki says. “We localize in Turkish, very specifically because of what’s going on right now in Turkey. We localize in Farsi. French. German. Spanish.”

They see the genre having social implications domestically as well. One time period they are considering for a future verite experience is the volatile years of the late 1960s and early 1970s in America. “I think we’ve become complacent over the past 30-odd years,” Navid tells me. “It’s time to start giving people the idea that revolutions were taking place. People actually took to the streets in this country in that time. You think of it as something that happens ‘over there,’ but it’s happened here, and it might need to happen again.”

Vassiliki has been buoyed by both the overwhelmingly positive response to 1979 Revolution and the variety of audiences it has reached. “It’s not just mere novelty, this idea of making decisions,” Vassiliki says. “There’s a valid story to it. It resonates with people.” iNK Stories has received accolades from everyone from “deeply, deeply moved and overjoyed” Iranians to a Christian gaming organization called GameChurch, which named 1979 Revolution one of its top picks from 2016. It was also featured in a UNESCO working paper titled “Empathy, Perspective and Complicity: How Digital Games Can Support Peace Education and Conflict Resolution.” The game has also done very well among female players. “Incredible,” says Navid. “Two to one, women over men are engaging with 1979.” As one of a handful of female producers in a heavily male-dominated industry, Vassiliki is eager to bring more women both in front of and behind the screen. “For the first time, publishers and people who are looking at the demographics are realizing that female gamers are a growing population and that they’re here to stay,” she asserts. “They can only benefit from this, by making more female-oriented content. And by doing that, you have to have more people. There has to be a movement to bring more women—not only behind the cameras, but also in the development process and the execution process.”

Director Navid Khonsari (standing) works with cast
members Bobby Naderi (kneeling), Ray Haratian (on-
back) and Omid Abtahi (right), on a stage at motion
capture facility House of Movies in Los Angeles.

The project’s reception was not universal; perhaps most notably, the Iranian government banned the game. Iran’s National Foundation for Computer Games called 1979 “anti-Iranian,” while its director said in a press release that “games like this can poison the minds of the youth and young adults about their country.” The response put the studio on high alert. “We had one of the guys who was working on the game here under an alias,” Vassiliki says. “A number of people who provided really crucial research, content and personal photos had to remain nameless to avoid jeopardizing their safety in Iran.”

But for the time being, iNK Stories will continue to explore the Iranian revolution through game experiences. Their next project is titled BlindFold, a virtual reality experience set in the universe of 1979. Again, the player embodies the part of a photojournalist (although a different one from the protagonist of 1979) who is being held in Evin Prison and is charged with making propaganda against the state. Vassiliki partnered with both Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists, who helped provide research for the VR experience.

 Vassiliki and Navid see this approach—combining verite with virtual reality—as the new frontier. “There are an incredible amount of possibilities [in] creat[ing] virtual reality experiences that are actually narrative driven. It’s literally the one area people haven’t jumped into because they haven’t figured it out,” Navid says. “But,” adds Vassiliki, “we’ve teamed up with the right partners. Really nailed down the tech. We’ve gone through the school of hard knocks, really cracking this cinematic, interactive narrative.” They have several more projects looming on the horizon that they aren’t quite ready to divulge, but they are excited about pulling in more partners from outside of the video gaming world—from both the nonprofit sector and Hollywood.

Like Vassiliki, I do not consider myself a gamer—my fast twitch gaming muscles only get me as far as the pinball that came with Microsoft XP. But I downloaded 1979 Revolution onto my phone and have been playing it all over New York—on the couch, in cafes, on the subway during my morning commutes. It is especially then, when I am simultaneously crossing the Manhattan Bridge and on my phone walking along Tehran’s Sharheza Avenue, that I think of Vassiliki and Navid, tucked in their studio in the shadow of the bridge’s overpass, creating the next form of revolutionary media. 

In response to the recent executive orders regarding immigration, iNK Stories is donating February’s proceeds from 1979 Revolution sales to the ACLU. Standing in solidarity with immigrants and refugees—including Navid Khonsari as well as many other Iranian natives from the studio’s production team and cast now living in the U.S. on visas or as citizens, some of whom were at various times registered as refugees—iNK Stories has doubled down on its conviction that our nation’s diversity makes us stronger.

- This article originally appeared in the February/March issue of Produced By magazine

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Panasonic Hosts PGA Members For Panel Discussion and Networking

Posted By Administration, Friday, February 24, 2017

On January 19th, PGA annual sponsor, Panasonic, hosted an evening of food, drinks and conversation for PGA members at the Panasonic Hollywood Lab. They also screened clips from Alan Rudolph’s upcoming film, Ray Meets Helen, which was shot using a Panasonic Varicam cameraMembers of the film’s creative team, Producer Steven J. Wolfe, Producer Ernst “Etchie” Stroh, Director Alan Rudolph and DP Spencer Hutchins, took part in a panel discussion.

PGA member and Producer Steven Wolfe said: "I was at this event last year right before I went into production with Alan Rudolph's Ray Meets Helen.  I learned so much about the Panasonic Varicam that it prompted me to take a serious look at using it for the production.  So it was especially fun to be here a year later showing clips from the film and talking to other PGA members about our experience with the technology. I attend a lot of these type of events through the PGA and something good and useful always comes of it".

Steve Milley, Steve Cooperman and several other members of the Panasonic team hosted the event. Thanks, Panasonic! 









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