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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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GALE ANNE HURD - How A Movie Producer Translated Her Skills Into Cable TV's Biggest Hit

Posted By Chris Green, Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Readers, we’re breaking with precedent here.

To this point, Produced By has never in its 17-year history put an individual subject on its cover twice. We think it’s a reasonable policy. After all, there are always new and talented producers coming on the scene for us to cover.

But then there’s Gale Anne Hurd.

Hurd appeared on the cover of Produced By’s fourth issue, way back in the spring of 2001. At the time, she was an acclaimed motion picture producer, having blown the doors off the business in the 1980s and ‘90s with modern classics like Aliens and the first two films of the Terminator franchise. In that interview, Hurd ruminated on her experiences in the business to that point, including her apprenticeship with low-budget impresario Roger Corman and the challenges she faced as a member of the new vanguard of female producers—a cohort that included Laura Ziskin, Lauren Shuler Donner and industry trailblazer Debra Hill. That group would ultimately lay the groundwork for the rise of Marvel Comics as a force in movies—at the time of the interview, Shuler Donner’s X-Men had been a hit, Ziskin was gearing up for production on Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man, and Hurd herself was soon to bring Ang Lee’s Hulk to the screen.

But if Gale Anne Hurd had stayed in the superhero movie game, it’s not likely she’d be on the cover of this magazine for a second time. While maintaining her profile as a feature producer, she dipped a toe into television, getting back to her classic genre-story roots to develop a horror series for AMC based on a cult-hit comic book she’d long admired. Originally conceived as an attempt to capitalize on the network’s strong Halloween ratings, The Walking Dead proceeded to rewrite the cable television record book, and propelled Hurd down an entirely new and unexpected career path.

Today Gale Anne Hurd is enjoying one of the most gratifying second acts the producing business has ever seen. And based on the interview that follows, we’re happy to report that the 21st century TV producer is just as candid and incisive as the 20th century movie producer was. Of course, Gale Anne Hurd is still producing movies in 2017, and there’s no telling what other platform(s) she’ll set her sights on. Check our cover in another 16 years and we’ll have the rest of the story for you.


Rather than going all the way back over your years with Roger Corman and James Cameron, which we’ve covered before, could we pick up the story with the years before The Walking Dead? To what degree was TV even on your radar in those years, say, the mid-2000s?

In the mid-2000s, the landscape was beginning to shift, but I was still focusing almost entirely on a feature deal at Paramount. Producing TV series, at that point anyway, was not something that I anticipated. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure what it was that a non-writing TV producer actually did on a series!



And other than a premium cable, like HBO, no one really thought of TV as being the source of some of the most compelling scripted content, with top actors, writers and directors. I thought of television as being the home of standard legal, medical and police procedurals. But as I saw more and more people, including our former PGA President Mark Gordon, finding huge success in television, it was clearly a medium worth exploring. Perhaps it would provide an opportunity to explore the kinds of genre stories that I’ve always loved but with a greater focus on creating compelling characters.

My development executives maintain strong relationships with their counterparts at various studios, networks, and production companies to find out if there’s particular content they are looking to develop. The feedback that I got was that AMC (which at the time we all thought of as the home of Mad Men and definitely not a network that would do genre) was looking to launch a show in their block of horror-genre programming, Fearfest, which ran during the two weeks leading up to Halloween. The little-known fact was that this block actually garnered better ratings than Mad Men!

AMC was really astute for realizing that they had a big audience of genre fans watching their network. How could they keep them there? How do they keep these fans coming back after Halloween? So with that intel, we needed to pitch a genre story that would be the basis for a character-driven, serialized horror drama. I’d been reading The Walking Dead comic book since it debuted in October, 2003. I had inquired before and the rights weren’t available. This time when I called CAA, they told me that the last person who had optioned them was Frank Darabont. And it just so happened that Frank Darabont was a close friend. He and my husband, Jonathan Hensleigh, had worked very closely together on the Young Indiana Jones TV series in the early 1990s, for George Lucas. I picked up the phone and called Frank and said, “Frank. The Walking Dead. Let’s do it.”

What I didn’t know was the backstory. Frank, under his overall deal with NBC, had developed a pilot script that they passed on. It had been submitted to and passed on by every other network. I told him, “Look, I know that AMC is looking to launch a genre show.”

Frank was initially resistant saying he’d been down that road and didn’t want to do it again, but then he came around. That summer we went down to San Diego Comic-Con to meet Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead comic’s creator, who at the time was still living in Kentucky. In the fall, all of us, including executive producer David Alpert, went in to AMC and pitched the idea of adapting The Walking Dead for cable.

 Gale Anne Hurd discusses a scene with cast member Cliff Curtis on the set of "Fear The Walking Dead"


I’m curious, how did the script and the story change from the version developed for NBC?

The early version had a lot more action, and the plot played out a lot faster. But AMC said, we want this to be a slow burn. We want this to be even more about character. You don’t need to burn through the story.


That was certainly much more in Frank’s wheelhouse. Frank turned in the script to AMC by late November 2009. In December they asked Frank to write an additional script so we’d have two episodes, which Frank did. Shortly thereafter, Fox International met with AMC and said that they were interested in establishing a new paradigm for launching television—essentially, a global launch. Traditionally up until that point, series that aired in the U.S. wouldn’t air overseas for months and months, often six months or more. And Fox said, “No, we want to launch internationally, within a week or less [of the U.S. premiere], but we need more than just a pilot. That’s when we ended up with the six-episode first season order. It wasn’t cast contingent. There really were no significant contingencies.


I guess that’s the virtue of working in cable as opposed to the broadcast networks? Broadcast has a reputation of being extremely hung up on casting.

Yes. I think that’s very much the case. At the same time, it’s not just that AMC got lucky. Look at the foresight they had to get behind both Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston playing characters very different from those that TV audiences had seen before.


So as a lifetime film producer, what was it like to first find yourself in the TV producer’s chair?

It got easier as I came to see the a television network very much like a film studio. In TV, there are seasons when you launch a series, just like there are summer tentpoles in features. Basically I was able to parlay my film experience and come up with analogies to help me understand television.


I’d love to hear some of those.

Well, for instance, the series had a launch date. In features, I’d often been given a release date long before I started a production. In fact you may have a release date before you’ve even got the first draft of a script. If I hadn’t experienced that before, I think I would have been terrified. But with The Walking Dead, at that point we already had a couple of scripts and everyone was happy with them. I have a history of producing films very efficiently. On The Terminator, we started shooting in March, 1984 and the film was in theatres that October.


The Roger Corman training almost comes in even handier in television, I imagine, than in film.

Absolutely. When you put a cast together in features, that may be for just one film, but now we’re entering our eighth season of The Walking Dead; we start shooting in May. In fact, 801 will be our 100th episode. If we had gotten the wrong lead—if we hadn’t cast Andy Lincoln—there may not have been a second season. It’s so important to get not only the right cast, but also the right crew. Television really is a family. We’re together for six months and then we reunite again season after season.

Producer Gale Anne Hurd gets a laugh out of cast member Andrew Lincoln while on the set of "The Walking Dead"


In terms of putting together that crew, what made you think that they would be the right people for the job?

Well the wonderful thing is that we’ve had the same fantastic line producer, Tom Luse, since the very beginning. We did shoot the first episode like a pilot. We shoot a typical episode in eight days, and we shot the first episode in 14. There were a few different crew members on the pilot, but for the most part we’ve kept with the same crew, certainly since our second episode. Tom (a loyal PGA member, I might add) has gone back and forth between features and television, and he knows the Atlanta crews. He could very much speak a language I understood and his guidance was absolutely essential from the very beginning. We’ve had the same location manager, Mike Riley, since the very beginning, and his insight and knowledge also have been essential. I think locations are more challenging in television than in a feature, because you really don’t know where the season may go, creatively, when you start production. We’ve got somewhat of a guide in the comic book, but not entirely. You need to make sure that you headquarter in the right place for a 16-episode series. You don’t want to find out three episodes in

that you should have based 40 miles in the opposite direction.


That’s for sure. Very few shows are an instant, obvious success right out of the gate, but Walking Dead was huge from the beginning. What’s that feeling like, realizing that you’ve got a hit on your hands?

It was totally unexpected. When we sent the script out to agents for actors to read, we found out later that they were saying, Oh my God, my client isn’t going to want to do this zombie series. There was a great deal of reticence in the industry to take the material seriously. People assumed it was going to be niche and appeal to a very narrow audience. We were hoping for ratings that would be close to or on par with Mad Men. If we managed that, we hoped we’d get a second season order. But the genre experience that Frank and I had, played a role, because we knew—and AMC agreed—that given our October premiere date, the most important exposure for fans would be at Comic-Con in San Diego. Television was already represented there but not to the same extent that it is now. It was still perceived as more of a launching pad for features. But given that our show was an adaptation of a comic book—and that year Kirkman was going to be awarded the Eisner Award at Comic-Con—it was important to promote the show properly to a potentially skeptical crowd. At the time, U.S. audiences primarily knew Andy Lincoln from Love, Actually, which is not exactly the obvious precursor to “genre southern sheriff.” Because genre fans care so deeply about the material that they love, if we had gotten the casting or adaptation wrong, they would let us know. If our promotional material hadn’t worked, it would have been almost impossible to create positive word of mouth. There we all were, sitting on the stage in Ballroom 20, absolutely terrified as to how the fans would react to our sizzle reel. When they cheered and wanted us to play the trailer again at the end of the panel, that’s when we all looked at each other and exhaled. Rather than immediate elation, it was relief first, then absolute joy.

Joel Stillerman from AMC was on the panel, and we announced that The Walking Dead was going to have an international launch … Fox International had brought their global press to a special breakfast and to the panel. That was a real game changer. The closest thing I can come to describing what it felt like was when Jim Cameron and I went down to Hollywood Boulevard and watched The Terminator play on its opening night. It was one of those experiences where no one has very high expectations, and not only do you surprise the audience, but you shock yourself.


That’s got to be very gratifying.

Marketing is one aspect of being a producer that doesn’t get enough of the spotlight. You’re not just there making sure that the creative is right and that you’re on schedule and on budget. Whether it’s a film or a TV series, it’s so important to make sure that it’s marketed properly and that you understand how important the fans are, because without them, you have nothing. If no one’s watching, you don’t get to keep doing it. So we’ve always been very, very, very, very involved, all of us who are producers on The Walking Dead. At the same time, even although the comic book fans are the ones with the greatest degree of want-to-see, we also needed to expand beyond that. I think at the time, the comic was selling maybe 30 or 40,000 copies a month, and that was not going to be enough to launch a television show and keep it on the air.


In that context, the show’s license to stray from its source material seems like an especially important decision.

From the very first season, we’ve had characters that did not exist in the comic book, like fan favorite Daryl Dixon. We’ve killed characters that are still alive in the comic book and we have characters still alive who are dead in the comic. That immediately changes the dynamic. We also love dropping in “Easter eggs” for the comic book fans, sometimes by bringing the comic book to life, panel by panel. At the same time, you don’t want people to be able to refer to a particular issue of the comic book and know exactly what’s going to happen in an episode.


What is your relationship like with the showrunner? Is it in some way analogous to the producer’s relationship with the director in features?

Yes. Absolutely. That’s absolutely the proper correlation.


That seems like another way that franchise filmmaking is fair preparation for TV producing. This isn’t the first time you’ve been the persistent presence on a story where the chief creative responsibility—the director or showrunner—might rotate to different people.

Right. Likewise, with franchises, you have to go in expecting that there’s going to be a sequel and knowing where that sequel is going to go as you are writing and producing the current picture. It’s the same way for a serialized drama. We need to know the character and plot arcs for future seasons in order to set up the right conflicts and relationships for the current season.


Walking Dead has been a game changer in so many ways, but we can’t ignore that it’s the first show to leverage its passionate fan base into not just a prequel series, but its own freestanding talk show dedicated to the series.

Once again, give credit where credit’s due: AMC had the idea for a talk show. When Talking Dead launched, it was only a half hour, but it turns out that fans wanted more, and the show is now an hour. AMC also deserves credit for finding the perfect host in Chris Hardwick. When the cast or producers are on the show, we all have to sit there like Cheshire cats so as not to give anything away when Chris or the guests make a guess about what’s going to happen on the show.

Talking Dead also significantly increases the demand for content. A typical show will shoot EPK behind-the-scenes footage that’s used for the DVD or for online content. For Talking Dead, we have to create exclusives—both behind-the-scenes content, as well as sneak peeks. Denise Huth, one of our producers, and I review and approve all that content. It’s a lot of extra work, but because we’re so involved, all of our behind-the-scenes materials are consistent with the dramatic story that we’re telling. We don’t want to cross the line and have footage that panders to the audience or that demeans characters or crew members, and we never want to give too much away in any of the EPK footage. That’s a constant challenge.

Yesterday I sat down with our unit publicist and we talked about what days we should have EPK on set. And when they get here, what sequences should they should they cover? It’s very much part of what a producer does on a show like The Walking Dead. I don’t know if it’s typical for TV, but that’s what I do on a feature as well.


So on the other side of that equation, how has being a television producer challenged you and expanded your skill set as a producer?

I refer to TV producing as a marathon and feature producing as a sprint. I mean, look at the shooting schedules. We do 16 episodes of both The Walking Dead and now Fear the Walking Dead. My new series, Falling Water, was 10 episodes. So to me, television is even more demanding. The directors rotate through, but as the producer, you have to gear up to shoot a short film every eight days. Eight days for 40 some-odd minutes of content. When you consider a movie is 90 or 120 minutes, that would be like shooting a feature film in 16 to 20 days.


Which, to be fair, is something you’ve always known how to do.

Exactly! That’s where the Roger Corman training is so valuable. TV is hugely challenging, but it’s also incredibly fun. You go to work knowing that there is no going over schedule. I mean, you’ll find very few studio films that shoot on schedule with no reshoots, but we get eight days. That’s it.  No reshoots. And the level of scope on our shows is pretty significant.


Yeah, they’re cinematic shows, by any standard.

We still shoot The Walking Dead on film. We shoot on Super 16.


A vanishing breed.

Fear the Walking Dead is shot HD. But it also goes to show you that old-school filmmaking still works, especially given the amount that our camera operators are shooting handheld. Super 16 cameras are much smaller than HD. You’d think the technology would mean that contemporary HD cameras are tiny. No, they’re huge and they’re heavy! [laughs] It’s great to be retro!


Gale Anne Hurd (bottom row, second from right) on location
in Georgia with her "Walking Dead" family.

Right. Before you go, I want to talk a little bit about Falling Water and getting the chance to discover a whole new world again. Can you say a little bit about the story and what drew you to it?

Sure. I had a general meeting with Blake Masters and he pitched me the concept that we’re all connected through our dreams. What if very powerful dreamers existed and they could leave their dreams and enter yours? I thought that was a powerful premise. Blake told me that he and Henry Bromell (Homeland and Homicide: Life on the Street), who has since passed away, had written a spec pilot script during the writer’s strike in 2007-08. He dug it out and sent it to me. I read it and immediately told him that I had some notes but I’d love to meet to discuss where the show could go as a series. Soon after, he and Henry came in for a meeting. They were excited to expand the world of Falling Water and I was captivated, because it was all new to me. Then within a week and a half, just before we were going to meet again, Henry passed away. It was such a shock that we put Falling Water on the shelf. About a year or so later, Blake called up and told me he’d spoken to Henry’s widow Sarah, and since Falling Water was such a passion project of Henry’s, she’d given us her blessing to take it out. By this time I had an overall deal with Universal Cable Productions, so we took it to Dawn Olmstead and Kate Fenske and they loved it. The first director we went out to, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who had directed 28 Weeks Later and Intacto, read the script and came on board to direct the pilot.

Juan Carlos, Blake and I were on the same page, creatively and visually.  The work that had really inspired Henry and Blake was by Haruki Murakami, the remarkable Japanese novelist. Bringing the world of Falling Water to life visually was a challenge, but Juan Carlos came in with a look book that blew everyone away. The timing was ideal because USA Network had just launched Mr. Robot successfully and they wanted something else that might appeal to the same audience. The premise of Falling Water is that we’re all dreaming individual tiles of a larger mosaic, and if you can stand back and see the mosaic, perhaps you can change the fate of the world.


Well, now I’m curious. It sounds like the show is very much in the vein of the existential, searching genre shows we’re seeing today like Westworld and Mr. Robot. Black Mirror is another one. These shows seem to be willing to really question the most basic premises of TV narratives.

The show delves into the power of the human mind and our connections to each other that haven’t been explored before.


And obviously that’s territory you’re looking to explore. Where do you hope it goes?

Well, I hope it goes into a second season! [laughs]


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

- photography by Kremer Johnson Photography

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