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Making History

 Ed Zwick wanted to emphasize the location of the story of the Bielski partisans for his new period film Defiance—the forests of Belorussia (now Belarus), which shielded more than 1,200 Jewish refugees from the Nazis. He therefore shot almost the entire film in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio on an extremely grainy stock (Kodak Vision 5279 500T) inside a claustrophobic forest location in Lithuania, near where the actual events took place.

Ed Zwick wanted to emphasize the location of the story of the Bielski partisans for his new period film Defiance—the forests of Belorussia (now Belarus), which shielded more than 1,200 Jewish refugees from the Nazis. He therefore shot almost the entire film in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio on an extremely grainy stock (Kodak Vision 5279 500T) inside a claustrophobic forest location in Lithuania, near where the actual events took place.

Director Ed Zwick says he gravitates toward period pieces (Glory, Legends of the Fall, and The Last Samurai, among others) simply because “historical moments are a particularly good place to find circumstances where the dramatic stakes are so high in compelling stories. That was certainly the case with Defiance.”

Zwick's newest film, based on a historical book by Nechama Tec, documents the true-life story of the Bielski partisans — a band of Jewish fighters, led by brothers Tuvia and Zus Bielski, who protected a community of more than 1,200 Jews from the Nazis in the forests of Belorussia (now Belarus) for a period of several years during World War II. Shot near Vilnius, Lithuania, just miles from where the Bielskis' real story took place, the production was particularly grueling on a demanding schedule and budget (about $30 million). But then, Zwick and his team — largely consisting of veterans of his last film, Blood Diamond — were used to that following their experience shooting Blood Diamond in Africa.

What was more challenging was figuring out how to capture on film the claustro-phobic nature of the community's life deep in the forest over the course of years, as seasons and fortunes changed dramatically, and how to do that with limited resources. Rather than documenting a typical, graphic Holocaust story, Zwick opted to make a survival story, and every decision he made flowed from that.

“This story is really about how you hold onto your humanity in the midst of such circumstances,” Zwick says. “Do you become a monster in order to fight monsters? We realized quickly it was important to have a sense of life continuously in the story, and still indicate their circumstances, so there is a wedding scene and more color than you might expect given the situation. Still, trapped in the forest, we really tried to keep the sun out of the images — you rarely see the sky, in fact. [DP] Eduardo Serra designed a set of very interesting silks that we could move and unfurl quickly to keep light at lower levels throughout while we were shooting in the forest, giving us that kind of consistency. We made a set of technically interesting choices to maintain that consistency.”

The forest


Serra, like much of the crew working with Zwick for the second straight film, says that shooting the majority of the movie in a dense forest posed great challenges in terms of evoking chaos, while still establishing that sense of consistency.

“If you have sun coming through trees, you have no continuity whatsoever [with light],” Serra says. “It would be extremely distracting. So, basically, we always killed the sun — we tried not to have any sun on the set. Dramatically, it would not be welcome for what we were trying to do with this story. So those silks were a big tool for us. We would put them in trees and move them to follow the sun. We had a set of 60'‗60' silks for the trees, and then smaller ones for various uses.”

To highlight the forest as almost a smothering character in the film, enveloping all the action, Serra opted to shoot in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, rather than widescreen. He also shot on an older, rather contrasty and grainy film stock — Kodak Vision 5279 550T. His thinking was to relate the stock to the type of imagery that emanated out of the period being documented in the film; this was based on extensive research of reams of reference still photos and film from that era. His mantra was to avoid glamour at all costs, given the nature of the story.

Zwick (pictured top with actor Daniel Craig) and Serra (pictured bottom) opted to forgo makeup and rim lights to maintain the film''s gritty aesthetic. Serra designed a system of giant silks to shield shooting locations from the sun in order to maintain continuity in the forest.

Zwick (pictured top with actor Daniel Craig) and Serra (pictured bottom) opted to forgo makeup and rim lights to maintain the film''s gritty aesthetic. Serra designed a system of giant silks to shield shooting locations from the sun in order to maintain continuity in the forest.

“It's an old stock, and very contrasty, and that is why I wanted
it,” Serra says. “It's not something you would ever use for glamour,
but I thought it would be interesting to give the film a look that
relates to the period. I had no intention of giving it a more modern
look and then trying to create the period look in the DI — I always
prefer to do that on the original negative. So I presented it to Ed
Zwick, and he understood my idea, but I told him it would put us in
some risk. I said I wouldn't use the 85 filter [usually used for
exteriors], and I would push the stock two stops, which is not usually
recommended. So we were right on the edge of having what we call ‘cross
talk,'' which means the colors in the image are not well balanced. I
wanted that, to a degree, on the exteriors. For some night shots and
interiors — about 20 percent of the movie — I used Kodak Vision[2] 5218
[500T].”

Beyond trying to control inconsistent jabs of
sunlight in the forest with his system of silks, Serra stayed very
simple and realistic on location in pursuit of his goal to stamp out
any hint of glamour — shooting just about everything simply, using Carl
Zeiss Ultra Primes and Angenieux zoom lenses.

“No makeup, no rim lights, only realistic
light, never pretty — these were the things that were important to us,”
he says. “It's not a documentary exactly, but it is a story with many
loose realities in it, and we felt this was the best way to achieve
those realities.”

Editorial on location


The production editing offices were
headquartered inside a former strip-club building in Vilnius, which was
essentially a gigantic empty room perfect for digitally projecting HD
footage using a 2K NEC NC800C digital projector right out of the same
freestanding Avid Adrenaline system used to digitize and sync most HD
dailies. Those dailies were processed at Deluxe Laboratories in London,
which transferred original negative to HDCAM tapes and sent those tapes
back to Lithuania. As a result, the traveling infrastructure in
Lithuania was less grueling than what Zwick's team grappled with in
Africa for Blood Diamond, and it ended up allowing Zwick to
work closely with editor Steven Rosenblum, who traveled with the
production for most of the time the shoot was overseas.

“I normally cut on the road when I'm working for Ed,” says Rosenblum, who has done so for almost 30 years, “except for Blood Diamond,
when I was unable to travel for personal reasons. I prefer it that way,
because you can see certain problems that can be solved with an
additional shot they can pick up on location, rather than trying to get
it five months later. When we cut material on location, we see
immediately how to improve a scene with a certain shot that will drop
time out of the cut or increase the emotion or concentrate the story in
a way we didn't realize originally while shooting. It's always better
to get a pickup shot during production rather than post-production —
that is a real advantage.”

The production set up its cutting room in
Lithuania with a workflow that consisted of cutting the movie on an
Avid Meridian system after using the Adrenaline system to downconvert
and sync the HD dailies coming back to editorial from Deluxe. Material
was then screened in the makeshift editorial facility in Lithuania
directly out of the Adrenaline for filmmaker review.

Assistant Editor Cindy Thornton explains that
the production decided it was best to keep the actual cutting work on
the Meridian OS 9 platform given the early state of Adrenaline's
development at the time and the logistics involved.

For the DI, EFilm Colorist Natasha Leonnet worked with Serra and Zwick on EFilm''s proprietary version of Autodesk Lustre, dubbed Eworks.

For the DI, EFilm Colorist Natasha Leonnet worked with Serra and Zwick on EFilm''s proprietary version of Autodesk Lustre, dubbed Eworks.

“The Adrenaline was a great aid, but we went
with the Meridian to cut because we were in the middle of Lithuania and
Adrenalines were new and not so stable back then,” she says. “We had no
real support for Adrenaline if something went wrong. But [rental house]
GEP [Global Entertainment Partners, out of Los Angeles] was able to
provide three Meridians out of their London office, which saved us
about $30,000, and gave us any kind of support we needed. So it just
made more sense to do it this way.”

This approach was the best of both worlds from
Rosenblum's perspective, since his team, at the time, felt Adrenaline
wasn't ready to use for cutting remotely, but was perfect for
outputting an HD product within the context of the team's
Meridian-based workflow — allowing the quick and efficient screening of
HD dailies on location. At the same time, all HD material was stored on
drives. Later, when it came time to assemble the movie in HD, the
production imported data from those drives and the Meridian bins for
easy link-up outside of having to rebuild a few subtitles and a couple
of visual effects, thus circumventing the need to worry about the
online process.

“We could easily move my cut to Adrenaline and
output an HD product right away, but have no problem cutting in a
system we all knew, which was supported, without any sorts of problems
or worrying about onlines,” Rosenblum says. “Everyone is moving toward
editing in HD and getting rid of onlines, but [it wasn't feasible or
stable] to take four Adrenalines to Lithuania, so we found another way
to work around it. We tested how accurate it would be to translate from
Meridian to Adrenaline, and it was very accurate. The creative part was
a much bigger challenge than these technical issues.”

The DI


Highlighting the claustrophobic nature of the
partisans' encampment in the forest while juxtaposing various chunks of
material shot by Serra to hit what Rosenblum calls “the emotional
throughline” were crucial to the project's success. In that sense, the
editor says that the fact that the characters were mostly wearing the
same clothes throughout the piece — in the same basic environment and
with very few makeup issues — were great assets in his effort to stitch
it all together seamlessly. But he and Zwick both feel that Serra's
approach to visually indicating the passage of time and seasons, both
in production and during the digital intermediate, was central as well.

“The winter is a beautiful example of an
artful choice made by Eduardo,” Zwick says. “People tend to do winter
as a shade of blue. In this movie, he allows the dark green of the
forest to remain visible in winter, with some smoke added to the green
and even some yellow to make it cold and haunted and austere. It's a
look I really like, and it was achieved due to Eduardo's expertise.”

The digital intermediate was performed at
EFilm, Hollywood, by Colorist Natasha Leonnet working in collaboration
with Serra and Zwick on EFilm's proprietary version of the Autodesk
Lustre color-correction system, dubbed Eworks. Zwick calls the process
“a great problem solver” for the production, not only in terms of
seasons and snow and colors in the deep forest, but also for certain
night shots.

“If you shoot a night sequence and are having
trouble darkening those backgrounds to let the faces properly emerge
and really trying to help your contrast ratio, you can do a lot in the
DI,” Zwick says. “It's almost like zone development in still
photography. You place a window over something [using color-correction
tools] and bring it down a couple stops in a way you weren't able to do
the night you shot it because of the nature of the action or the set or
whatever, and now you can still do that. That is an unbelievable
advantage.”

Overall, in terms of the visual style and how
it translated into the DI, Leonnet emphasizes that filmmakers
intentionally stayed away from trying to achieve perfect symmetry
between all images, due to the nature of the story.

“Eduardo took an extremely natural approach,”
she says. “There was often a frantic feeling either happening, or about
to happen, in the film. In order to reflect that chaos, it did not make
sense to perfectly match each shot. Even if scenes took place in a
similar environment, they each had a slightly different feel. The hues
of the snow, for instance, varied from shades of green, cyan, and blue.
Nothing felt intrinsically neutral in these areas.”

In Zwick's view, all of this work done during
production and in post-production was a continuation of a larger,
ongoing design process. That's how he approaches all his films (see digitalcontentproducer.com
/mil/features/video_making_samurai
), and in this case, he's extremely proud of the result.

“Everybody together helped create that sense
of a passage of time in the forest, where you stay in one place
geographically but the seasons change around you as the partisans build
one place, tear it down, and constantly do these things over and over
to survive,” Zwick says. “That kind of thing is very important in
storytelling. That is all design work. [Costume Designer] Jenny Beavan,
[Production Designer] Dan Weil, set design [by Veronique Melery] all
came together, along with Eduardo, of course. That is something well
worth talking about — it's central to what makes this film work.”

Ed Zwick wanted to emphasize the location of the story of the Bielski partisans for his new period film Defiance
— the forests of Belorussia (now Belarus), which shielded more than
1,200 Jewish refugees from the Nazis. He therefore shot almost the
entire film in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio on an extremely grainy stock
(Kodak Vision 5279 500T) inside a claustrophobic forest location in
Lithuania, near where the actual events took place.

Brief, but Effective


Defiance only has about 100
digital-effects shots, but they are crucial to the story, and they had
to be crafted to compensate for things that simply were not feasible to
do in-camera on the production's tight budget and timeline. Among those
things: the creation of German Stuka dive bombers that attack the
partisans, a mass grave, weather changes to account for seasonal
shifts, and crowd extensions to depict armies and refugees in numbers
sufficient enough to be believable.

All the visual-effects work was done at Visual
Effects Supervisor William Mesa's Hollywood shop, Flash Film Works. As
sophisticated as the CG work — largely done in NewTek LightWave — was,
the integration of this material into Eduardo Serra's plates was the
biggest challenge for the effects team, according to Mesa.

“Everything about this film was done to give
it a real sense of what these people went through, and that is the
basic similarity to the work we did for Ed on Blood Diamond and, before that, [The] Last Samurai,”
Mesa says. “Integrating that into what was done live, or things that
had practical effects like pyro added to it, was complicated. And some
things we did digitally that they could have done live — like bullet
hits on trees or people — just because our schedule required we get the
timing right, rather than trying to trigger it all perfectly one time
on set. Most of that integration work was done in [eyeon Software]
Digital Fusion, with 3D tracking done in SynthEyes [a camera-tracking
tool from Andersson Technologies].”

A lot of the extension work was extremely
subtle, such as adding snow to shots to change vistas and adding
digital extras to crowds of partisans or soldiers. However, the Stuka
bombing raid, which comes at a key point in the film, is clearly the
most complex effect. According to Mesa, all those shots consisted of
dozens of elements, with one having about 60 elements.

“All the planes were CG and the falling bombs
were CG, and then the explosions were practical [created by Special
Effects Supervisor Neil Corbould's team],” Mesa says. “There is a big
tiltdown shot where bombers come overhead and we look up at them and
then tilt down to the camp, where we see the bombs exploding as they
impact the ground. We created all sorts of elements for the bombs
dropping — adding machine gun fire from trees, people getting blown
apart, and a lot more. We built accelerator rigs of the different
actors flying across the frame from explosions, and they are all comped
together into the shot. It was the only way to do it — we couldn't
possibly have put enough people together to do a practical firebombing
like that. So we shot separate elements, put the people back in, and
then had numerous runs at the shot where we put the people in various
specific places, so they are in the right place at the right time
during the attack. It was quite complex. We did something similar with
another shot when a bunker where women and children are hiding is hit
by bombs, and people go flying everywhere.” — M.G.