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‘Searching:’ How a Story is Told Through Computer Screens

"It's a true storytelling feat, married with sharp editing that makes the entire effort not only seamless, but also wholly intuitive."

Describing the feature Searching,Peter Debruge says, “Intricately designed and innovatively told, Aneesh Chaganty’s clever missing-persons mystery stars John Cho as a father [David] desperately trying to find his daughter [Margot] from behind a computer screen.

“Cutting to the emotional core of what social media says about us, the result is as much a time capsule of our relationship to (and reliance upon) modern technology as it is a cutting-edge digital thriller,” Debruge says. To read the full article, click here

“It’s very simple,” says the film’s producer Timur Bekmambetov. “We spend half of our time now in front of us on our devices and it means our ‘screen life’ is quite important to us and reveals so much about us. Our entire lives play out on our devices—fear, love, friendship, betrayal, our fondest memories, our silliest moments. 

“It seemed to me that there wasn’t a way to tell stories about today’s world and today’s characters without showing our screens. Because multiple dramatic life events play out on our phones and computers. Most importantly we make impactful moral choices today with these instruments. To be able to depict this I think is a way to authentically reflect who we are today, collectively.” 

Listen: Timur Bekmambetov Discusses Crafting New Filmmaking Tools

“We wanted to make a movie that we wanted to watch,” recalls Chaganty of mapping out the film with co-writer Sev Ohanian. “Our favorite kinds of movies are gripping and emotional with a lot of suspense and intrigue, and from day one, we wanted this to be a story where you would just fall into the mystery and almost forget the way it’s being told.”

“If you look at the actual storyline of Searching, you’ll see a lot of the traditional elements of the mystery thriller. Our goal was to mirror those things that we loved best and adapt that into the screen-life concept.”

Searching is a hyper-modern thriller that unfolds entirely on computer screens,” Chaganty explains.”We wanted it to be engaging, thrilling and most of all: cinematic. And we knew exactly how we’d pull it off, too. 

“First, we’d start with a storyboard. Then, we’d turn the storyboard into a full-length animatic (I played every role in the first cut). Next, we’d shoot all the live-action footage and spend a week or two finding the best takes. Finally, we’d drop that footage back into the animatic, update the film with high-resolution graphics and voila: our movie would be done.

“Things did no go that simply.

“The first thing we realized was that, given our conceit, we were always met with an infinite amount of creative choices. We could frame shots differently, we could adjust dialogue if it was emailed or texted, we could create new plot points, replace pictures, or write new scenes entirely. Essentially, we could change everything in every frame at every single moment we worked on this movie.” To read the full interview, click here

Read more: Timur Bekmambetov Only Wants to Make Movies on Computer Screens  

Detailing the construction of the film, Kate Erbland says, “Searching plays out first on David’s laptop screen, tracking him as he finally involves the cops—including a restrained Debra Messing as a lauded detective who takes on the case—while also attempting to launch his own investigation. Soon, however, he realizes he must go elsewhere: Margot’s laptop, which is full of its own secrets and revelations about what might have led to Margot’s disappearance.

Read more: To read the full article, click here.

Searching‘s rhythm and pacing stand out,” says Bryan Bishop, “from the way the camera punches in and moves around computer screens to the way it creatively adds new angles to the mix, while still adhering to its basic conceit.

“More often than not, the fact that we’re watching an ersatz computer screen falls away completely, leaving only the drama of David’s search. It feels impressively cinematic, which is no small feat, given the stylistic limitations. To read the full article, click here.

Read more: Screen Life Movies Can Change The Game If They’re Done Right

“The prep process for this movie was a lot of not only technical conversations,” recalls cinematographer Juan Sebastian Baron, nut we also had a lot of philosophical conversations of, How are we going to do this? What is our approach? What does this mean? Are we going to have the actors operate the camera, is that part of our philosophy for this? Are we going to do a lot of the deterioration of the footage in post, or are we going to capture it as real as possible? 

“Aneesh’s mandate really was, ‘I want to make this as real as possible. I want people to feel connected to this movie because it’s really relatable and very honest,'” Baron continues. “In keeping with that, the cinematography has to be grounded. It has to be just as organic.

“It was really fun,” the cinematographer says. “We shot with iPhones—our A camera iPhone was Aneesh’s personal phone! We took the screen-life technique up a notch and [production company] Bazelevs was as excited about it as we were. 

“It was well beyond a FaceTime chat or Google Hangout. We involved all sorts of different media. We even had traditional news footage but it would be revealed and seen the way most of us get our news, through an online portal and viewed through a computer. So that was a big logistical challenge. 

“We really had to break down every piece of content that was going to be presented in the film, and had to break it down into time period, what kind of camera would we ideally want to capture this on, and then realistically—because we couldn’t have 30 cameras—we had to break it down into the types of cameras that could give us different looks and different styles that would be authentic.”

Baron juggled the technical and creative aspects of more than a dozen recording devices used to film Searching, each with its own capabilities and constraints. He found himself less occupied with lens choice or dolly movement, since most of the “cameras” recording the action were fixed, whether attached to a computer or mimicking surveillance optics.

“Luckily, Bazelevs had developed a lot of technology in-house that helped us… like some of those FaceTime conversations,” Baron says. “They had engineered this rig with dummy laptops with GoPros attached to them and LED lights to kind of mimic the screen, and they all go into this security camera switcher system—it’s this very Frankenstein contraption, but it really was the best way to solve the problem of doing scenes where the actors are talking to each other via FaceTime. And it also gave Aneesh the opportunity to watch playback and kind of have a more traditional director relationship with his actors.”

Watch: The Early Short Films of Searching Director Aneesh Chaganty

Read more: “Our Computers Were Crashing Roughly Six Times a Day” Director Aneesh Chaganty on Searching

Read more: The Tense, Emotional Thriller Searching Proves Good Computer Screen Movies Aren’t a Fluke

The overall process of assembling the film paralleled that of an animated motion picture in that layer by layer, each new pass added more critical information. Apart from the actors’ performances and physical sets, assets that were filmed, staged, or imaged as a screen capture, website, blog comment, text message, or digital news clip all had to be added in the edit. As filming continued, the elements from that initial rough cut were slowly replaced by the more designed, refined, and detailed versions.

“We began working on editing seven weeks before production started, with a totally blank timeline and worked with Aneesh, taking pictures of the space and screenshots of web pages to build out kind of an animatic of what the movie was going to look like, which was used during production,” co-editor Will Merrick explains.

“We were refining the story with the director and producer in the room,” adds co-editor Nick Johnson, “so that essentially, when they started shooting, they knew exactly what they were shooting, they knew what the eyelines should be, what they would see in terms of the actual set and that helped tremendously because ultimately, we didn’t have to do as many pick-ups as we might have otherwise had to do, had we not had the pre-viz.

“The actual editing was all done in Premiere Pro, and the reason we chose Premiere and Adobe was because they have a really nice ecosystem, where you can send assets over to After Effects very smoothly, and then we can ultimately finish everything in After Effects, which for us was essential. For this particular project, with all the effects that we knew we were going to have to do, that Premiere and the Adobe system made the most sense,” Johnson says.

“Essentially, everything that didn’t just come straight out of a camera on set was an effect that we had to create. So, say the top bar of Google Chrome had to all be created from scratch,'” says Merrick.

“We worked with an outside vendor named Neon Robotic to create some templates for us and they were a huge help for building some of the more complex assets like iMessage and Chrome and Chrome docs, stuff like that. But then other than that, it was just me and Will in [Adobe] After Effects and another design tool,[Adobe] Illustrator, replicating everything you see on a computer screen, and then meticulously key-framing and moving the mouse around and animating every asset that you see,” Johnson says.

The editors did try to treat Searching as a “traditional movie” in that they were concerned about “…pacing and transitions and making sure we cut the conversations carefully so the dialogue worked,” Johnson says. Specific to Searching, he adds, is the first-person perspective of John Cho’s character.

“The whole thing is from his perspective, so you’re constantly trying to exploit those little moments where he might not be on screen, but you can still reveal his POV and mindset. So, for instance, a mouse might hesitate before clicking on a button, or it might move a little bit slower, or it might move a little bit faster if he’s really excited. So little things like that were really fun because it felt like acting. The actual edit of scenes felt like performance.”

“What’s most remarkable about Searching is the way it takes one of the oldest, most ineffective movie tropes of the last 25 years—that of a lone figure sitting at a computer, desperately awaiting information—and manages to make it compelling not just for a few seconds, but for an entire film,” says Brian Raftery

“Part of its appeal is the way David’s online behavior mimics our own: The way we type out a long, venting text before re-considering and erasing it altogether; the way we catch our strange expression in a FaceTime video, and quickly correct ourselves. But maybe the real reason the movie works so effectively is that, while watching David struggle through a dense and semi-menacing online world, we’re also quietly searching for ourselves.” To read the full article, click here.