How to Make a Summer Blockbuster? Start With One of These (Unsung) Stars

11:00 AM 6/20/2016

by Carolyn Giardina

From little fish ('Finding Dory') to men in leggings ('Captain America: Civil War'): meet the cinematographers, editors, costume designers and visual effects whizzes who help Hollywood audiences suspend their disbelief.

Summer Blockbuster-Cinematographers-Publicity-H 2016
Universal Pictures

(Pictured: Jason Bourne cinematographer Barry Ackroyd)


    The Naturist, Jason Deamer
    Finding Dory, June 17

    During his 18 years at Pixar, Deamer, 42, has designed such characters as Remy, Linguini and Anton Ego for Ratatouille and the Seagulls for Finding Nemo. As art director on the long-awaited sequel Finding Dory, he worked on new characters including Hank the octopus and Dory's parents. For Hank, he turned to nature for inspiration. "I found the mimic octopus, which is capable of changing the color and texture of its skin to almost vanish; they also are known to form the shape and motion of other fish," says Reamer. "I was immediately inspired. That's where I got to thinking about Hank as a reluctant superhero and exaggerating that talent — to change colors and shape-shift."

    Master Puppeteer, Brad Schiff
    Kubo and the Two Strings, Aug. 19

    "Kubo and the Two Strings was by far our most complex film to date," says animation supervisor Schiff, 45, of the fourth feature from the Portland, Ore.-based stop-motion animation studio Laika. (He has worked on all four, starting with 2009's Coraline.) To create the Japan-set fantasy adventure, he explains: "We had loose-fitting clothes, long-flowing hair, weapon-wielding characters and a fully furred monkey — each of these things is incredibly difficult in stop-motion animation. I do my best to work closely with the director and animation team establishing solid character development and casting each animator on characters, sequences and shots that cater to his or her individual strengths. My ultimate goal is a stop-motion film that eclipses the quality of animation Laika is known for."


    Action Star, Barry Ackroyd
    Jason Bourne, July 29

    Ackroyd, 62, knows how to get his camera into the center of the action with a kinetic, documentary style. That prowess earned him an Oscar nomination and BAFTA win for Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and additional BAFTA noms for such films as Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips and United 93. Of Bourne, his fourth film with Greengrass, Ackroyd says, "Things flowed very smoothly, and the shoot had a natural rhythm. This might sound simplistic, but we both like to create complex tales using basic techniques. The motto I like to use comes from an interview with the great documentary filmmaker Robert Drew: 'We said f— the dolly, f— the crane, f— the tripod. Just shoot and shoot and shoot.' So we did."

    Independent Stylist, Bojan Bazelli
    Pete's Dragon, Aug. 12

    Montenegrin director of photography Bazelli, 58, has two films scheduled to open the same day in August: Disney's live-action remake of Pete's Dragon, directed by David Lowery, and Spectral, a sci-fi thriller about a special-ops team dispatched to fight supernatural beings that have taken over New York City. His credits as a cinematographer include The Lone Ranger, 2005's Mr. & Mrs. Smith and 2007's Hairspray. "The look of Pete's Dragon is based on new ideas — it's a modern and contemporary approach with natural light," says Bazelli, who shot the film primarily on location throughout the North and South islands of New Zealand, from Gore to Rotorua to Wellington. "The landscape is beautiful, so we wanted to use natural light. Also, we were filming with an independent style."

    Fashionista, Natasha Braier
    The Neon Demon, June 24

    The Argentinean's films include The Milk of Sorrow, XXY and now Nicolas Winding Refn's modeling-world-set horror show The Neon Demon. "Nic said he wanted it to feel like a series of still photographs, but he was mainly talking about the static nature of the camera and the intention of doing a lot of scenes in one main wide shot," says Braier, 41. "The only visual thing Nic gave me was a list of 10 films to watch, together with a playlist with 20 songs — films like Valley of the Dolls, Rosemary's Baby, Suspiria and some of Kenneth Anger's films. They were all very different aesthetically, and I think the message there was, 'We are going to do a crazy unique movie.' " She adds: "[Production designer] Elliott Hostetter and I are big fans of [artists] Guy Bourdin and James Turrell. We definitely were inspired by Bourdin's textural work and paid homage to Turrell in a fashion runway-show sequence."

    The Legend, Vittorio Storaro
    Cafe Society, July 15

    Influential Italian master Storaro, 75, has won Oscars for the classics Apocalypse Now, Reds and The Last Emperor. Most recently he teamed with Woody Allen to photograph Cafe Society, with both shooting a feature on digital for the first time as they re-created a lush vision of Hollywood's golden age. The tech tools were new, but Storaro was committed to a long-standing artistic credo. "The art of cinematography is writing with light in motion," he says. "That's what we should do: We should write with light. The language of light is powerful. We shouldn't forget that cinema, in the beginning, was silent. The story was told through images, and the image was revealed by light."


    The Secret Weapon, Steven J. Scott
    Captain America: Civil War

    Technicolor's Steve Scott, 59, is Marvel's go-to colorist/finishing artist whose latest efforts are Captain America: Civil War for Marvel and The Jungle Book for Disney. Scott brings an art and visual effects background to his work, which involves digitally adjusting the color and light to give a film its finished look. He is called upon regularly by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, having color-graded Lubezki's Oscar-winning work on The Revenant, Birdman and Gravity. Scott says that for Civil War, directors Joe and Anthony Russo "wanted to push the boundaries and come up with new looks. For the flashback sequence with Tony Stark's parents being chased by the Winter Soldier, we came up with this Polaroid-print look. And in the first introduction of the Winter Soldier, a fight sequence, we came up with an edgy, cool blue-steely look. Those were really artistic explorations."

    Mr. Versatility, Stefan Sonnenfeld
    Alice Through the Looking Glass; The Founder

    In-demand colorist Sonnenfeld, 51, who also is president of Company 3 and chief creative officer at Deluxe, has worked on some of the biggest movies around — from Star Wars: The Force Awakens to this summer's psychedelic Alice Through the Looking Glass and the action-packed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, as well as the indie The Founder. But while sought out regularly by such directors as J.J. Abrams and Michael Bay, he particularly relished working on a smaller character study like The Founder, John Lee Hancock's portrait of McDonald's entrepreneur Ray Kroc. "They insisted on shooting film," says Sonnenfeld, "and it really helped provide a subtle texture and feel to the images that anchors them in the midcentury time period."


    The Music Man, Carter Burwell
    The Founder, Aug. 5

    Burwell, 60, earned accolades this past awards season for Anomalisa and Carol, for which he earned his first Oscar nomination. Next up is The Founder, starring Michael Keaton as Kroc. "At the beginning of the film Ray Kroc is a struggling middle-aged salesman, and you're rooting for him," says Burwell, "but by the end you start to feel uncomfortable with having rooted for him because of the choices he makes. That was the challenge — and goal — of the score. I handled that by reaching for some of the qualities of Americana he tries to use to sell McDonald's, so there's a lot of guitar and instruments like that. As the business starts to take off there's a certain militaristic sound that starts to come in, and percussion becomes important. At no point does the music turn against him; I want you to feel for him, even if that makes you uncomfortable."

    Cosmic Voyager, Michael Giacchino
    Star Trek Beyond, July 22

    Giacchino, 48, male adults cry with his Oscar-winning score for Pixar's Up (particularly with its moving "Married Life" sequence). He also has created a body of work for TV shows and films from J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot production company, including Lost, Star Trek and Justin Lin's upcoming sequel. "Star Trek Beyond is actually the first time I am writing for a third film in a series," says Giacchino. "Because the first two films were about trying to get the Enterprise out into deep space — but always coming up against something that prevented them from doing that — we ended up with a little bit of a darker score. For me, this new film hearkens back more to the original TV show — it's a little more hopeful. I had the chance to create a new sound that represents where the crew is now in their journey while at the same time incorporating the existing themes familiar to our audiences."


    The Fantasist, Colleen Atwood
    Alice Through the Looking Glass

    Atwood, 67, is the 11-time Oscar nominated costume designer who has won trophies for Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha and 2010’s Alice in Wonderland. For the sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass, she returned to Underland, but she’s hardly repeating herself, offering up variations on the look of such favorites as Alice, the Mad Hatter, the Red Queen, the White Queen and the rest of the fantasy’s returning cast — as well as outfitting new characters like Sacha Baron Cohen’s Time. Alice could even prove fashion-forward, she says. “Iracebeth’s — the Red Queen’s — sculpted armor costume may resonate in the world of fashion. I don’t quite know what they would do with it, but I think that a certain part of the fashion world will connect with it in a humorous way. And the embroidery on Alice’s Chinese-themed jacket and the structure and the way it’s designed might resurface on the runways in a couple of years.”

    The Comics Couturier, Kate Hawley
    Suicide Squad, Aug. 5

    The looks of Jared Leto's Joker, Cara Delevingne’s Enchantress and the rest of the twisted DC Comics villains in Warner Bros.’ Suicide Squad were created by costume designer Hawley, 45, who also has designed looks for characters ranging from the hobbits, elves and dwarves of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy to the casts of Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak and Pacific Rim. Hawley says that Harley Quinn, the Joker crony played by Margot Robbie, was her most challenging character on Suicide Squad. “She has never been portrayed on film before, and in the comics, Harley is constantly depicted in an ever-changing wardrobe of looks,” Hawley noted. “We explored many of these outfits and worked to distill Harley’s iconography, to fit her into this world that director David Ayer was creating. That said, we quoted many visual moments directly from the comics, and there is a nod or two to the classic red-and-black jester outfit that she’s most synonymous with.”


    The Multihyphenate, John Ottman
    X-Men: Apocalypse

    Ottman, 51, was both the editor and composer on Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse — a highly unusual combo. His collaboration with Singer goes back to 1995’s classic The Usual Suspects, which he scored — and edited. Ottman also served as both editor and composer for the director’s Jack the Giant Slayer and X-Men: Days of Future Past. “Apocalypse was in many ways more complex than Days of Future Past because it was a straight narrative with the burden of introducing so many characters while at the same time being a wrap-up to a three-film cycle,” Ottman says. “There are a million moving parts on any film, let alone one on such a large scale with so many visual effects. For me, it was like having a club in one hand while standing in a football field full of whack-a-moles, while precariously balancing my music keyboard on the other.”

    The Storyteller, Christopher Rouse
    Jason Bourne

    Rouse, 57, has enjoyed a long working relationship with Paul Greengrass, which resulted in an Oscar for his frenetic cutting of The Bourne Ultimatum and additional editing noms for Captain Phillips and United 93. He is back in the editing room working on Universal’s Jason Bourne, but this time around, he also co-wrote the screenplay with Greengrass. Storytelling runs in Rouse’s family: His father, the late writer-director Russell Rouse, won an Oscar for the screenplay to 1959’s Pillow Talk, starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day. “When I was a kid, my dad used to explain to me that editing is fundamentally writing with film. And I’ve always approached editing from that perspective,” he says. “When I cut, I’m trying to tell a story. When I write, I try to imagine the material as if it were fully realized and I was working with it in a cutting room. Going into this project, I knew that the editor in me had to be critical of the writer. Over the years, I think I’ve gotten pretty good at being objective about my work and not getting too attached to anything. So in the end, I tried to be respectful of what I’d done on-page — but not sentimental about changing it.”

    The Ringmaster, Ken Schretzmann
    The Secret Life of Pets, July 8

    Schretzmann, 55, is perhaps best known for editing the Oscar-winning classic Toy Story 3 for that film’s director, Lee Unkrich. More recently, this Pixar alum has been working with Chris Meledandri’s Illumination Entertainment, editing The Lorax and, now, The Secret Life of Pets. “Our great comic cast that included Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet and Jenny Slate found a way to take our lines and add little bits to make the characters their own,” Schretzmann says. “Kevin Hart especially liked to improv. There would be one line and he would spin it into a hilarious 10-minute monologue that had us in tears. The challenge for me was to distill it and fold it into his scenes. Something I learned on Toy Story 3 was keeping an ensemble cast “alive” in a scene. Actors in animation are recorded individually, so I’ll throw in vocals to give the illusion that the characters are playing off each other. On Pets, we kept a collection of vocals — things like cheers, screams, laughs and grunts — that I dipped into more often than you’d imagine.”


    The Nonconformist, Alessandro Bertolazzi
    Suicide Squad

    “My approach to the concept was definitely unconventional,” says Bertolazzi, 58, the hair and makeup department head on Suicide Squad (whose recent work also included the Wachowskis’ Netflix series Sense8 and the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy). “I employed new techniques because I wanted to use organic materials in new ways. I changed the perception of them while retaining their attractive properties. We also used feathers, fabric and hemp to bring this vision to life. My favorite characters to create were the Joker and Harley Quinn.”

    The Mutant Maker, Adrien Morot
    X-Men: Apocalypse

    After completing work on The Revenant, Morot, 45, immediately plunged into summer movie season, serving as makeup department head on X-Men: Apocalypse and contributing to Warcraft. For X-Men characters such as Nightcrawler (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, taking over the role last embodied by Alan Cumming in 2003’s X-Men 2), he says the goal was “keeping the essence of the previous incarnations of the characters but updating it to a more sophisticated eye. One thing I wanted to bring to the character that wasn’t in the original Nightcrawler makeup was, if you look at the comic books, he looks feline in the way that he stands and with his tail and yellow eyes and the way the ears are shaped.”


    The Dreamer, Rick Carter
    The BFG, July 1

    A two-place Oscar winner for Avatar and Lincoln, Carter, 63, most recently served as production designer on Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The BFG, Steven Spielberg’s fantasy film based on Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s book. For Carter, who worked with production designer and two-time Oscar winner Robert Stromberg on the film, it was about creating a hybrid movie — achieving a live-action feel with digital backgrounds and a digital lead character — all while getting the scale right when the leads include a small orphan, played by Ruby Barnhill, and a 24-foot CG giant, voiced by Mark Rylance. It also involved creating the imaginary island of Giant Country, inspired by the work of artist Sveta Esser. “We tried to make it something you could have experienced in your subconscious — giving it a timeless look,” says Carter. For the bookend scenes set in Great Britain, he opted for a “hyper-romantic version of London in the early ’80s.”

    The Wizard, Stuart Craig
    The Legend of Tarzan, July 1

    Hogwarts and the Diagon Alley would not look the same in the imaginations of a generation of moviegoers were it not for Craig, 74, who served as production designer on all of the Harry Potter films — and who will continue bringing magic to muggles with this fall’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. In the meantime, the three-time Oscar winner (for The English Patient, Dangerous Liaisons and Gandhi) who has been honored by Queen Elizabeth with an OBE, turned his hand to The Legend of Tarzan. “The most challenging set was the jungle, built on soundstages at Warner Bros. Studio Leavesden outside London,” says Craig, since it required creating massive trees and roots that were 40 to 50 feet wide. “The disappointing thing about real rain forests is that they are very unphotogenic. They tend to be quite a mess; you want to rearrange the trees and foliage to make it more designed.”


    Sonic Star, Anna Behlmer
    Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

    In a field dominated by men, Technicolor’s Behlmer, 50, stands out, having earned 10 Oscar noms for such high-profile films as 2009’s Star Trek franchise reboot, Seabiscuit, Moulin Rouge and Braveheart. As a rerecording sound mixer on the TMNT sequel, she says, “The biggest creative challenge was the fine line between a live-action sensibility and an animation sensibility. Our main characters are CG but put in real environments. For instance, they went to Brazil to shoot a waterfall, and the sound was realistic for a large environment with a large soundscape. Other sequences couldn’t be played realistic and large, as the turtles are cracking jokes. The intention of those scenes was fun.”

    The Voice, Randy Thom
    Ice Age: Collision Course, July 22

    Even if you don't recognize his name, you’ve heard his voice. Skywalker Sound’s sound designer, rerecording mixer and supervising sound editor Thom — at 65, he’s a 15-time Oscar nominee who’s won twice, for The Right Stuff and The Incredibles — used his own vocalizations to shape the performance of the famous bear in The Revenant. And it’s not uncommon for him to contribute the various creature voices in his work. “I use real creature sounds, but when I can’t get the right performance, I’ll use my own voice,” he confesses, adding that in the latest Ice Age film from Fox and Blue Sky Studios, he got “to be one of the little hyraxes — tiny, furry little gopher-like creatures — and I perform a marriage ceremony as a hyrax channeling Elvis. They have their own language that we’ve invented.”


    Destruction Dervish, Volker Engel
    Independence Day: Resurgence, June 24

    Two decades after Engel, 51, won an Oscar for Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, the German VFX supervisor returned to work with the director on Independence Day: Resurgence, in which Earth is faced with a new threat. “Even though Jeff Goldblum says in the trailer, ‘This is definitely bigger than the last one,’ our and Roland’s approach was rather to expand on the first film than to top it,” he says. “The first film was produced at the brink of the digital revolution — 95 percent was shot using miniatures with motion-control cameras and then combined digitally in postproduction. In today’s filmmaking environment, these gigantic miniature setups unfortunately neither make sense financially nor creatively. But one well-known fact we took over from the destruction sequence of the first film, and it became another Goldblum quote: ‘They like to get the landmarks!’ Yes, they still do.”

    The Giant-Slayer, Joe Letteri
    The BFG

    When The BFG's performance-capture-based giant stomps into theaters, it will be thanks to the visual effects team led by Letteri, 61, who already has nine Oscar noms under his belt and who has won four times, for his work on two of the Lord of the Rings movies, King Kong and Avatar. But while the BFG might be a big guy, the work that Letteri oversaw as Weta Digital’s senior VFX supervisor was actually quite delicate and subtle. “The human face gives you infinite possibilities for expression,” he says. “We had to understand how Mark Rylance was using subtle movements to deliver emotion so that when you see BFG in the film, you know it’s Mark.”

    The Spirit Simulator, Pete Travers
    Ghostbusters, July 15

    Travers, 45, of Sony Pictures Imageworks, is the VFX supervisor leading work on the reboot of 1984’s Ghostbusters — including new ghosts as well as old faces such as Slimer and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. “It was a lot of fun watching the team come together to create — and in some cases re-create — the huge variety of ghosts in the movie,” he says. “Every ghost presents its own set of challenges, whether you are creating a completely new character or updating an audience favorite like Slimer.”

    The Gamer, Bill Westenhofer

    Westenhofer, 48, who already has Oscars for The Golden Compass and Life of Pi, was the VFX supervisor on Legendary’s Warcraft. “It’s the first time I’ve ever been rewarded for spending so many man hours playing a video game,” he laughs. “Orcs were 50 percent of the movie. The nuance of Warcraft is there are heroes and villains on both sides. They’re all performance-capture, filmed interacting with humans on live-action sets. Director Duncan Jones wanted it to feel like a live-action movie.”