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Winging It

Davis Guggenheim

After directing Al Gore”s environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth and Barack Obama”s official biography film, A Mother”s Promise, filmmaker Davis Guggenheim was plenty used to following famous people around and trying to get them to open up for his camera and microphones. When he came up with a rough concept to make a new film to pay homage to the electric guitar and to do it by spending intimate time with rock stars, however, he soon realized he was entering an entirely different world. For one thing, he had no idea how to structure his story or with whom to tell it, and for another, he desperately wanted to stay away from the traditional rock-documentary concept at all costs.

He did have what he says he thought was an interesting format in mind for the movie now known as It Might Get Loud. It was an idea that percolated out of his mind from a different, failed documentary he investigated a few years ago: an idea to compare and contrast artists” methods, styles, personalities, and personal histories.

Jimmy Page
Photo: Alba Tull. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

“I”ve never really discussed this, but I tried to raise money about six years ago for a documentary that I pretentiously called Work of Art,” Guggenheim says. “The emphasis was on the work of artists; to put three different types of artists together—perhaps a painter, a novelist, and an actor—and have them talk about their process, and intercut them. I thought that by contrasting them, you might learn about the universality of the artists. I was totally into the idea, but from the beginning, it was a nonstarter. I failed to raise the money or get anyone interested. But when this subject came along, I thought, ‘Let”s see if we can do what I was trying to do then for this one: get three guitarists and put them together and compare them.” The difference is, I thought there needed to be some kind of an event to build the movie around, to bring them together.”

Guggenheim picked three legendary guitar players from different generations and music styles and put them together: Led Zeppelin”s Jimmy Page, U2”s The Edge, and The White Stripes” Jack White. But even after reaching out to each man and securing their interest, he still had to formulate a methodology for making his film. What he says he most certainly didn”t want was “to map their biographies like a VH1 Behind the Music-type story, where you follow every album, tell vignettes from their rise to fame. The third act is always their crash, the drug overdose or car wreck or whatever. I didn”t want to do that at all.”

Jack White
Photo: Alba Tull. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

The process

Instead, Guggenheim decided to simply “trust the process,” meaning he would talk to each man in-depth and let those conversations lead him to find pieces of their individual stories relating to their love of the guitar and music that were compelling enough to go out and try to illustrate with newly shot and archival moving images. He later would build pieces of those stories around an unscripted summit meeting between all three of them (they had never formally met prior to the making of the documentary) on a gigantic sound stage on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif.

Guggenheim”s method for launching his process was to first meet with each man and create multitrack audio recordings of their 2-hour-to-4-hour conversations and use those as “the film”s backbone,” according to producer Lesley Chilcott. Those audio interviews gave Guggenheim “a way to find the things the three men had in common, and their differences,” Chilcott says.

The Edge
Photo: Alba Tull. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Once the original interviews were done, they served as the foundation for a creative exploration process. Guggenheim and editor Greg Finton began cutting up the interviews as if they were making a radio show and intercutting them with low-resolution YouTube videos. A road map resulted that gave Guggenheim and his team enough guidance to start rolling both film and digital cameras as they set out to tell the three men”s stories (shot mainly with Super 16, with some Super 8 as well) and then bring them together for the summit (shot with Sony F23 cameras onto HDCAM SR tape).

“Davis called me in as soon as he completed the audio interviews, and I”d say that for the first month that I worked on the project as the editor, we had almost no footage of our own whatsoever,” Finton says. “It was the first time in my career where YouTube played a big part in slapping the film together. I would take audio pieces—many of which ended up in the final movie—and find images to put over them. It was a unique way of working, but it let me get the ball rolling and sort of bounce ideas around about how we envisioned the thing once we started getting footage.”

Guggenheim adds that the YouTube angle should not be overlooked. Over the course of time, if vintage footage of one of the three men made it into the early cut, his team would go hunting for the original source footage and rights to that footage, but it was the early, ultra¬low-res YouTube footage that got them moving forward with an actual story. The director says the experience, albeit unintentionally, illustrates a new way of doing documentary research.

“YouTube sort of was our research department; it really changed everything,” Guggenheim says. “We used it also on Inconvenient Truth. It used to be, if you wanted footage, you called a news organization and filed a request for footage with keywords, and four weeks later, you got some of the footage you asked for if you spent a lot of money. Greg and I were making this story come alive ourselves and didn”t want to wait for a researcher, so as we got ideas, we just went on YouTube and found things that were quite remarkable [in terms of archival footage]. There is one clip of Jack White playing an early concert with [bandmate Meg White] in Detroit that was perfect. We found the kid who filmed it several years ago with a tiny videocamera, and he didn”t even know how to license it to us. Many such clips were useful facsimiles as we set out talking to hundreds of sources about footage. Dozens of clips in the movie were originally located on YouTube.”

It Might Get Loud Director Davis Guggenheim brought his subjects—guitarists Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White—together for the first time at a summit meeting on the gigantic Warner Bros. soundstage 16 in Burbank, Calif. That summit served as the binding element for his documentary, which pays homage to the electric guitar.

Stories and summit

As personal stories for each man emerged, Guggenheim arranged for crews to film them in their own environments—their homes, recording studios, and old haunts. White”s story was filmed at his home in Tennessee by cinematographer Erich Roland, while The Edge and Page were filmed by various cinematographers in the United Kingdom. Along the way, a technical methodology emerged that Guggenheim says helped him main¬tain his theme of contrast. He filmed most material from the personal stories on Super 16 film stock, but he used five Sony F23 HD cameras to capture the summit footage and recorded all audio to a mobile production truck.

“My sense was that the movie would be more powerful if you create a visual contrast between things,” Guggenheim says. “It”s like with cooking—you want something sweet and you want something sour. So the Super 16 felt richer to me, more personal, which was good for their stories. It evokes more feelings—it can be moody, deeper, darker, richer, with shadows and things. Whereas, at the summit, the HD stuff makes you feel like you are right there with them. It”s crisp and clean. By contrasting them, you get this great effect of the two senses of time—that they are coming together at the summit in realtime, now, while they are reflecting back on their personal stories, which is evoked on Super 16 from their personal narratives.”

Roland also filmed the three men in quiet, candid situations as they prepared for the summit. For all those segments, he chose Canon HD lenses (11×4.7 for wide angles and 22.85 for long shots), attached to his film camera using an Abakus adapter.

It Might Get Loud sound and music was edited at the Warner Bros. dub 12 mixing stage in Digidesign Pro Tools (v. 7.4) and mixed through a Digidesign Icon control surface.
Photo: Bob Beresh

“I use the Canon HD lenses for just about everything I do, whether I”m shooting HD or film,” Roland says. “What that does for me is allow me to get very used to two lenses, unless I need something very long, very wide, or very fast, which are unusual circumstances. In documentary situations, you have no focus puller anyway, so these lenses make it easy for me to do it myself simply, and that gives me a better chance of keeping these guys in focus with a lens I”m very familiar with.

“Working on a documentary, and working with Davis, you have to be prepared to get up and go at any time. There really was no master photography plan, so these lenses make it easier for me to [be flexible]. Since these are three very different men, you want to film them each differently. Jack White is very theatrical and has a certain style, so you want to shoot him theatrically. The Edge is completely the opposite—he”ll sit quietly for hours and work with sophisticated electronic equipment, so the lens wants to get closer to him, and you don”t want to shoot him from the same angles as you would Jack White. And then Jimmy Page is older, but he”s elegant and stately and dependable. He won”t launch himself out of the frame like Jack White would. So we gave him a more formal frame—he”s earned that kind of respect, to be honest.”

DP Guillermo Navarro supervised the summit shoot using the F23s outfitted with Fujinon 2/3in. HD Cine lenses. The plan for the summit, compared to the personal stories, was relatively high-tech. At the suggestion of supervising sound editor and rerecording mixer Skip Lievsay, the production chose the largest sound stage on the Warner Bros. lot (soundstage 16) for its superior acoustics, set up a central living-room style area for the three guitarists to interact and a lounge to the side, and then proceeded to mic almost every square inch of the stage.

They then shot the meeting with five F23s, but they did not switch cameras live, broadcast style. Instead, they recorded picture at 1080/60p (1920×1080) over dual-link HD-SDI fiber to Sony SRW-1 HDCAM recording decks. Under supervision from the shoot”s technical manager, Pete Rizzo, the production built a complete control room and video village on the stage, along with a tape room.

Meanwhile, interview audio was captured to tape through lavalier mics on each guitarist. Performance audio (all music) was recorded to a Le Mobile production truck. Recording engineer Guy Charbonet and his team recorded all music through an AMS Neve 8058 mixer into Apogee Electronics converters, where it was then isolated to hard disk using a Digidesign Pro Tools|HD3 system to organize the material for the looming remix.

“It was both a film-type shoot and a record-recording session,” says Lievsay, a frequent Coen brothers collaborator who also served as a consultant throughout the production process, in addition to his postproduction duties. “They had coverage of instruments and amplifiers to record directly into Pro Tools, but also radio mics and boom mics to get quality voice recordings as they chatted. That let the three guys walk around and chat, and a lot of candid stuff came out of it, with Edge and Jack White just asking Jimmy Page questions when they happened to be taking a break. They could hang around, sit on couches, and chat, and we could capture all that, and then we recorded their music as though we were making a record.”

Left to right: Jack White, Jimmy Page, and The Edge improvise a version of The Band”s “The Weight” during taping of their summit meeting. All visual elements were captured by five Sony F23 digital camera systems recording to Sony SRW-1 HDCAM decks, while performance audio was separately recorded to a mobile production truck.
Photo: Eric Lee, 2008. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Cutting and finishing

The ongoing editing process was, at times, laborious. Finton eventually found himself with reams of material to deal with after going weeks with almost no visuals at all. In addition to the film from the personal stories, and the hours of material from the summit, he and assistant editors Mike Azevedo and Troy Rackley constantly grappled with new vintage footage rolling in, frequent new versions and formats for that material, and thousands of still photos.

Azevedo says that during the finishing process, the production constantly labored to up-rez stock footage masters to D5 tape, running sometimes ancient and often degraded imagery from a variety of sources through a Teranex converter box in order to clean the material up. He says that most of the archival footage arrived on DVD or even VHS tapes.

“[For editing], we would export footage as QuickTime files and import those into the Avid,” Azevedo says. “When it came to the finishing process, we experimented with a number of ways to deal with the sources, since many of the DVDs and VHS sources we thought were going to be temporary turned out to be the best-quality master we could get. Some masters were captured, de¬interlaced, and upconverted directly in the [Autodesk] Smoke system. Others were captured into the Avid and de-interlaced and upconverted in [Adobe] After Effects. The Teranex upconversion process was part of this experimentation with finding out what worked the best for each source. But during finishing, we were continually upconverting stock footage one way or another and turning over updated reels to Company 3 every day.”

The editing team cut the film in the same building as Company 3, Santa Monica, Calif., using three dual-core Mac Pros running Avid Media Composer software (v.2.7.7). Material was stored on a 3TB G-Technology G-Speed FC RAID system running CommandSoft FibreJet SAN software. Azevedo says the production found FibreJet more cost-effective than running Avid Unity storage, and more convenient than relying on shuttle drives. Dailies and inhouse screenings were usually viewed in the editorial facility, projected directly through the Avid into a Panasonic PT-AX200U projector.

The biggest editing challenge was how to logically weave together the three separate individual stories, the summit, and a handful of animations designed by Kate Anderson and created by Click 3X New York, which also did the film”s title work. The animations were designed to illustrate anecdotes from the audio tapes that had no film or video footage associated with them. One example is an animation of what White”s boyhood bedroom looked like after he moved out his bed and all other furniture not directly related to music and acoustics. Another is a chart that provides a visual for The Edge”s complex explanation of how sound travels from amplifiers and around a room in different situations.

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“The only thing we knew going in, and believed in fervently, was that we would not cut between the stories until each individual story was ready and existed as good stories on their own,” Guggenheim says. “So we spent months just building a Jimmy Page story, an Edge story, a Jack White story. Only when those were done did we sit down to figure out how to put them all together.”

“That was a tough thing to do,” Finton says. “My first cut was assembled almost in a linear fashion, but it was dull—Jimmy shows the first guitar he ever bought and tells that story, and then Edge tell his, and then you know Jack will be next, and the audience will be five steps ahead of the film if you do it like that. So the linear stories were just a starting point, and then it was just a matter of trying different things to make them fit together emotionally.”

Material from so many sources provided a challenge for colorist Rob Sciarratta at Company 3, as he tried to blend the imagery as seamlessly as possible. Video from the summit had subtle grain additions, for example, to moderate its sharp contrast from the film footage it intercuts with. Also, White”s face presented temptations for Sciarratta to bring out his big guns within his Da Vinci Systems Resolve color-correction software, since the musician prefers to wear Goth-style pancake makeup.

“Some of the Led Zeppelin footage from the 1970s—it was like from a Tron movie or something, with heat patterns on the film because it was so beat up,” Sciarratta says. “We also had bad DVD or VHS material up-rezzed to HD or film space, and whenever you do that, you get certain positives, but also a few negatives that can happen from it that we had to address. But the end result was what counted. It”s a documentary, and all this footage was made in a less-than-ideal world, so we had film with grain patterns and then we had HD video. And it was all shot in different places by different people in different lighting conditions. But because it is a documentary, that is what you would expect. All that different stuff should not have the exact same vibe in terms of contrast and saturation. So we tried to clean it up only in the sense of it not being distracting, and to be as true as we could to whatever medium the material was shot in. Resolve is so state-of-the-art, though, that we could do some pretty cool things—isolate stuff, do endless windows, secondary isolations, softening and blending, changing the characteristic curve of video—so it was very helpful.”

At the end of the day, Guggenheim insists his team made a documentary that, as the title suggests, should be played “really, really loud,” but they did it using an unorthodox methodology that made perfect sense to its three leading players. After all, as Guggenheim says, “they are rock and roll guys.”

“They have been improvising their whole careers—so all three of them got it when I explained what we were trying to do,” Guggenheim says. “We just went with it and trusted the process more than designing a story up front. Documentaries, after all, are about the story revealing itself to you as you go. The trick, as the filmmaker, is being ready to adapt when that happens.”