Cinefex Diaries – Rush and Spectre

Unbelievably, I’ve been working at Cinefex for nearly five years. That’s three years in my current role as full-time senior staff writer, which was preceded by two years as part-time blog editor. Time sure does fly when you’re having fun.

Big anniversary years make you nostalgic, right? So I’ve been delving back through all the magazine articles I’ve written during that time. The first of these was my article on Ron Howard’s Formula 1 biopic Rush, published in Cinefex 136, January 2014.

At the time, I was as green as they come. Despite many years as a novelist and short story writer, this was my first serious non-fiction assignment, and my first experience conducting interviews as a research journalist. Looking back, I’m not entirely sure how I muddled through, but muddle through I did, and I’m still pretty pleased with how the article turned out. Check out the blogs I wrote as I went through the process:

As an aside, there’s a nice circularity here. I recently completed my article on Solo: A Star Wars Story, for which I finally got to chat with the very director I wasn’t able to interview for Rush. More about Ron Howard, the Kessel Run and the Millennium Falcon when Cinefex 160 launches a few weeks from now.

After Rush, it was all about the blog for two years, until November 2015 when I joined Cinefex on a full-time basis, writing articles for the magazine (while still keeping the blog romping along). My first assignment as senior staff writer was Spectre, published in Cinefex 145, February 2016. This was a very different kettle of fish to Rush, where my interviews were largely confined to the film’s sole visual effects vendor, DNEG. With Spectre, I found myself talking with the world and his wife – Industrial Light & Magic, MPC, Cinesite, DNEG (again), Framestore, Peerless, Propshop, IO Entertainment, special effects supervisor Chris Corbould … the list went on. No surpise that the interviews yielded over 50,000 words of transcript – twice what I’d had for Rush. Here’s the blog I wrote at the time:

My favourite Spectre interview was with production visual effects supervisor Steve Begg, who spoke to me on the phone for over an hour while he was strolling through the streets of Edinburgh. Partway through our conversation, he found the optimum spot in the city for 4G reception – the interior of an old church. Steve’s obvious delight at the carvings he found in there was so beguiling that I almost wished I didn’t have to return his attention to James Bond and his latest exploits.

For the next issue, I took on not one article but two. Jody Duncan, Joe Fordham and I have a give-and-take way of sharing the workload, you see – if one of us has a couple of heavy assignments on one issue, the others will give them a break next time around. As the new boy, I only had to tackle one film on my maiden voyage. Next issue in, things ramped up. In fact, they ramped up more than any of us had anticipated so that, for various reasons, I actually ended up writing three articles for Cinefex 146.

But I’ll save that story for next time.

The many lives of a writer – 7

Most people are like cats – they live not just one life, but many. Writers are no exception. Here’s me as I plunge into my seventh writing life.

Cinefex TypewriterLife 7 – Just the facts, ma’am

My seventh writing life starts today, as I start my new role as senior staff writer at Cinefex, a leading American magazine that publishes in-depth articles about major feature films – specifically the visual and special effects. It’s spectacularly exciting, unbelievably challenging, and absolutely a dream come true.

If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you’ll know all about Cinefex. You’ll know that I’ve been reading the magazine since the early ‘80s, when I was a spotty teenager who divided his time more or less equally between haunting his local cinema and prowling the streets with a Super-8 camera making strange and occasionally disturbing short films.

The Formula For Fire - Cinefex 136You may also know that, around four years ago, I started writing blog articles reviewing the magazine’s early issues, in a series called Revisiting Cinefex. One thing led to another, and I ended up running a weekly blog for the magazine itself. I also wrote a full-length article that saw print in Cinefex 136, covering the visual effects of Rush, Ron Howard’s 2013 film chronicling the famous rivalry between F1 drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt.

From now on, such articles are going to be my bread and butter, as I join the Cinefex editorial team to write full-time for the magazine.

Actually, this new job’s about more than just writing. Working on the VFX industry’s journal of record means I’ll be doing a ton of research, which includes conducting one-on-one interviews with key movie personnel. You see, Cinefex is the industry bible – according to Star Wars creator George Lucas, the magazine is “required reading for anyone interested in the new era of filmmaking.” Legendary filmmaker James Cameron has no hesitation in calling it “the one true source.”

No pressure then.

“Wait a second,” I hear you cry. “I thought you wrote fiction.”

Yes, I do. And I’ll continue to do it just as I always have, after the day job’s done. The great news is that, from now on, the day job is all about writing too.

Anyway, I’ve come to believe that the perceived gap between fact and fiction is in reality paper-thin. While my new mantra will by necessity be “just the facts, ma’am”, there’s a lot more to research journalism than just crunching data. Good reporting means first getting to the heart of things, then discovering what makes that heart beat, and finally communicating the rhythm you hear to the reader.

In other words, it’s about telling the story.

And that’s what I intend to do.


Formula For Fire

Formula For Fire - Cinefex 136One day in 1981, in a tiny comic shop in London, I stumbled over an American magazine called Cinefex. Within its pages, I discovered a number of ultra-detailed articles about visual effects, a subject that had fascinated me for some time. The films under discussion were Dragonslayer and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The issue also contained a thought-provoking study of the brand new technologies behind some new-fangled process called computer imaging.

It was love at first sight.

Thirty-three years later, my fascination with visual effects hasn’t diminished. And my love affair with Cinefex is still going strong. That’s why the package that just came through my door is so special. Inside were my author’s copies of Cinefex #136, which contains my debut article for the magazine – Formula For Fire, an in-depth analysis of the VFX of Ron Howard’s F1 film Rush. It’s my first serious piece of published non-fiction, and I’m very proud of it.

Cinefex #136 – which also features definitive coverage of Gravity, Thor: The Dark World and Carrie – is available direct from the publishers’ website. Alternatively, try that little comic shop I mentioned – it’s called Forbidden Planet, and it’s now an international chain of stores. You can enjoy Cinefex either in traditional print form, through your web browser or as a stunning interactive iPad edition. The latter features a host of additional high-resolution pictures and exclusive video content.

Rush – it’s a wrap

rm-3If you’ve landed here hoping to learn about the visual effects of Ron Howard’s Formula 1 film Rush, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed. Yes, I’ve finished my article on that very subject and yes, I’ve submitted it to the publishers. But you’ll have to wait until it appears in the winter edition of Cinefex to read it.

However, if you’ve a passing interest in how a writer of fiction adapts his process to tackle research journalism, read on.

The starting point for my article was over 25,000 words of interview transcript – check out my earlier post about the interviews here. My challenge was to weave this research into an 8,000-word account of the making of a modern motion picture’s visual effects sequences. The Cinefex house style requires the writer to avoid editorial comment and simply present the facts – no mean task when you’re juggling input from nine separate contributors, each describing a different facet of what is a highly technical process.

My initial attempts to start at the beginning and plough through to the end met with disaster. Because filmmaking is an organic process involving many different departments working concurrently, it wasn’t immediately obvious where the beginning even was. So I ditched the idea of writing the manuscript in a linear way and turned to index cards. Of the digital kind, of course.

Rush article workflow in Scrivener

Scrivener screenshot of my Rush article in progress – click to enlarge. Oh, and bad luck, I’ve blurred out the text!

My favourite piece of writing software, Scrivener, comes equipped with a neat system whereby you can create individual text files that work either as separate cards (you can even view them pinned to a virtual corkboard), or which you can dynamically flow together into a single manuscript. Similar outlining systems exist in other word processors, but the intuitive way Scrivener handles its files is hard to beat. As a bonus, it can manage all your research documents too: transcripts, web pages, even multimedia. Had I chosen to, I could have loaded all the audio files from my interviews into the main Scrivener project file (I stopped short of doing this for fear of initiating a laptop meltdown).

Having worked all this out, I plunged straight into the middle of my research and wrote a card about the location shoot of Niki Lauda’s 1976 crash at Nürburgring. I chose this because it was the area in which my research was clearest. From there, I skipped from transcript to transcript, adding cards in no particular order as the mood took me. I didn’t worry about the structure of the article, simply concentrated on sifting information from the transcripts. I also began to add my own snippets of text to give context to the quotes, elaborate on the details and fill in the gaps.

As I referenced each section of an interview, I changed the colour of the transcript text from black to light grey. The more I lifted from them, the more the transcripts faded. Browsing back through them, I could tell at a glance if I’d missed anything. Eventually I had a research folder haunted by ghostly copy and a chaotic project folder full of index cards detailing the film’s entire visual effects process. To pull the article into shape, all I had to do was move the cards around until some kind of order asserted itself.

Then, once the article’s structure had finally emerged, I had to rewrite everything.

I’ve no doubt this organic process is familiar to any writer who’s tackled an assignment like this. But this was my first time, so I had to work it out for myself. The only real complication was a last-minute interview with a new contributor, and an eleventh-hour viewing of the film, which had just been released in the UK. Both forced me to rethink things a bit, but without them the article would have been less well-rounded.

Once I was happy, I emailed the final draft to Cinefex editor in chief Jody Duncan. She made a few editorial tweaks, after which I sent the manuscript round all the contributors for a technical check and, having accommodated their revisions, fired it back across the Atlantic to Jody.

So my work is done. I can sit back and relax while the Cinefex team works its magic to incorporate my 8,000 words into a perfect-bound printed journal lavishly illustrated with colour photos, a matching online version and a spectacular iPad edition enhanced with additional images and video content.

As for how all that is achieved … that’s another story!

Rush – movie review

Rush PosterMost good stories have a moment where they shift into a higher gear. With Ron Howard’s Rush, that moment comes when the Ferrari driven by Formula 1 champion Niki Lauda is involved in a terrifying crash at Germany’s notorious Nürburgring circuit. The film’s recreation of this historic event from 1976 is hard-hitting and visceral. I knew it was coming, but it set my pulse racing all the same. And so it should. It’s the moment about which the entire film pivots.

I might even stick my neck out and say the Nürburgring race is one of the best bits of cinema I’ve seen this year.

Not that Rush is all about racing and crashing. Daniel Brühl is outstanding as the obsessive Lauda, while Chris Hemsworth plays the raffish Hunt with both gusto and sensitivity. Peter Morgan’s intelligent screenplay gives both actors plenty of opportunity to stretch their chops, while at the same time explaining just enough of the practicalities and politics of Formula 1 to keep the average moviegoer on track.

Ron Howard’s direction – greatly aided by Anthony Dod Mantle’s energetic and colourful cinematography – deftly evokes the giddy spirit of the 1970s. It’s clear he loves his actors, but it’s equally clear he knows the audience expects to see tons of high-octane motor racing action. This he delivers – in spades. If you doubt how much of the motor racing was done for real, just look at the long list of “Precision Drivers” in the credits. At the same time, note that another major credit reads: “with the participation of Double Negative”. The enormous contribution of this UK visual effects facility to the race sequences will go unnoticed by the majority of the viewing public. Which is just how it should be.

But the fiery, beating heart of Rush is that fateful crash. It’s also where the film’s only difficulty lies. Early on, Hunt and Lauda are firmly established as a pair of extremists, each driver pursuing glory for very different reasons. As such, neither of them is entirely likeable. There were moments during the first half when I wondered if Howard had dropped the ball by not making me care enough about these men.

Then came that heart-stopping moment at Nürburgring. Followed by the entire second half of the movie. Not only did the action step up, but suddenly I discovered I was rooting for both of these damaged, delirious drivers – had been rooting for them all along, in fact. As the final races unfolded, and the human drama played itself out, I decided this was exactly what Morgan and Howard had intended. Rather than soften up the early scenes, they’d allowed Hemsworth and Lauda to take the hard line. A high risk strategy, one that hinged entirely on the Nürburgring crash and its aftermath. A strategy that worked like a dream.

In Rush, Hunt and Lauda are portrayed as eternal antagonists, each driving the other to become greater than they could ever have been alone. They are two opposing halves who – against all the odds – make a whole. This film about their lives has two halves as well. Put together, the whole they make is pretty great too.

Thanks to Joe Fordham for the heads-up about those credit roll highlights!

Rush – VFX interviews completed

RushI’ve just finished interviewing for my Cinefex article on the visual effects of Rush. The last meeting on my list took me yesterday to Leavesdon Studios in Hertfordshire, UK, where I spent a fascinating hour with my final victim – sorry, interviewee. He’s deep into preproduction on a new project, so it was fantastic to steal an hour of his day to talk about a show on which he wrapped at the end of last year. When I thanked him for giving up his valuable time, he simply smiled and said, ‘Cinefex is the best.’

In addition to yesterday’s jaunt, I’ve also conducted four interviews at a visual effects house in London, done two more over the phone and emailed a bunch of questions to one of the supervisors who wasn’t able to talk to me in person (he’s currently putting in 12-hour days on location). The end result of all this is around five hours of recordings, primarily about visual effects, but also taking in Rush‘s special effects and art direction.

Before getting the recordings transcribed, I’m doing a quick edit of the audio files to cut out long pauses and as many of the ‘um’s and ‘er’s as I can catch. Once I get the transcriptions back, I do what I think of as a ‘pre-edit’. That mostly means cutting out repetitions and extraneous words (you’d be surprised how often people – interviewers included – say ‘you know’ or ‘kind of’), reconstructing broken sentences and generally cutting to the chase. The end result is as clean a written record of each interview as I’m going to get.

When I embarked on this, my first foray into research journalism, I was nervous about going into all these interviews blind. But I soon realised that’s part of the deal. Even if you think you know stuff about a show, you have to assume you don’t. The interviewer is the empty vessel waiting to be filled. There’s a moderately high stress level attached to that: ‘If I mess up with the information-gathering, I’ll have nothing to write about.’ But a little fear never did anyone any harm, right?

Fortunately, all the people I spoke to have been both passionate and articulate about what they did on the movie, and genuinely enthusiastic about talking to Cinefex. Once the transcription process is finished next week, I should have roughly 25,000 words to draw on for my copy. My target for the final article is between 8,000 and 10,000 words.

Time to get writing!

Rush – heading behind the scenes

Rush PosterRegular visitors to this blog will know I’ve been writing about the world’s best visual effects journal Cinefex for quite some time now. Well, I’m delighted to announce that now I’m writing for it.

The article I’m working on will look at the visual effects of Ron Howard’s new film Rush, which is scheduled for UK release less than a month from now (the article itself is due for publication in the winter issue of Cinefex). Right now I’m in the middle of interviewing a number of people involved in the production, after which I’ll be putting my head down to whip the thing into shape and turn out the copy. It’s a thrill to be writing for a publication I literally grew up reading, so I’m pleased to say a big ‘thank you’ to publisher Don Shay for throwing this opportunity my way. Thanks also to editor Jody Duncan for all her support to date (no doubt there’ll be more to come) and to associate editor Joe Fordham for nursing me through some of the technicalities.

One of the big lessons I’ve learned so far about research journalism has come from Don, via Jody, and it’s this: Remember to leave your ego at the door. It’s good advice, and chimes nicely with a mantra I learned a long time ago in the design business: There’s no such thing as a stupid question. I’ve discovered that it’s all too easy to go into an interview with preconceptions about what answers you’re going to get. It’s also tempting, when someone says something you don’t understand, to gloss over it for fear of looking dumb. Both are traps I’m trying hard to avoid.

I’ll tell you more as the article progresses … but not very much more. I have signed a non-disclosure agreement after all. But I can tell you that the visual effects breakdowns I’ve seen are truly stunning. As for the movie itself: hell, I’ll be first in line. In a purely professional capacity, you understand.

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