Episode 171 — Cinefex Magazine, PART II

 

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Episode 171 — Cinefex Magazine, PART II

Hey, everyone!

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 171! I’m speaking with the writers at Cinefex. This is Part II of the interview (www.allanmckay.com/170). In the previous Episode, we dove into the history of the Magazine.

Getting to discuss the history and stories behind Cinefex with Jody and Graham has been great! The latest issue of Cinefex comes out this month: http://www.cinefex.com/next_issue.htm. The magazine will cover feature films Alita: Battle Angel, Welcome to Marwen (I interviewed Kevin Baillie a few weeks back: www.allanmckay.com/148); Fantastic Beasts and a behind-the-scenes story about 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Let’s dive in!

 

FIRST THINGS FIRST

[00:44] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Here is the thing: Most of us think that we can put our latest work on our reel, add some music — and get the job. A lot of us aren’t aware that the majority of reels sent to a studio are skipped through and sometimes never even watched in the first place.

Everything we’re taught about being an artist is wrong! Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write a book from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. I want to:

  • Give you the formula to be the obvious candidate for the job;
  • Tell you how to build a reel and put it up on YouTube — that brings studios to you!

You can get this book for free right now! Whether you’re in design, film, tv or games, go to www.allanmckay.com/myreel!

 

INTERVIEW WITH CINEFEX, PART II

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since its 1980 launch by its Founder Don Shay, it’s been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

The next issue of Cinefex No. 162 is out in mid-December 2018: http://www.cinefex.com/next_issue.htm. The Issue will cover feature films Alita: Battle Angel, Welcome to Marwen, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald and Aquaman. It will also include a story by Don Shay that covers the behind-the-scenes of the 1953 classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in an interview with Director Richard Fleischer.

In this Podcast, Cinefex Editor in Chief Jody Duncan and Senior Staff Writer Graham Edwards discuss the publishing process, the legacy of the magazine and the influence of technology on the publication.

 

[02:44] Allan: Just to jump around a little bit, one thing that we talked about earlier is the development of these issues. With everything being online these days, it has changed the immediacy of things. I’ve even noticed the attendance at SIGGRAPH has dropped because you go online and read about it. Have you found a lot of shifts in people’s expectations?

Jody: It was something that really worried us for a while there. How can we possibly be timely? How can someone shoot something for The Dark Knight Rising in Chicago and here it is the next day: the rigs they were using? How can we compete with that? We talked about changing the format of the magazine. And we finally decided to be the Classic Coke. We decided to stick to our formula, something that nobody else does; even if it’s a dinosaur formula. We do full stories. I think of Cinefex of a kind of making-of story. And if you want to read that, you’re going to have to wait a month and that’s just it. Rather than trying to compete with the internet — and there is not way we could compete! — [we realized]: As long as we still had to write and interview and publish on paper and wait for the printing press, we cannot compete with the net. But what we can do — is do a more thorough thing and people wait for it. And they don’t mind waiting for it! That’s the surprise. In fact there’ve been a couple times recently when we covered some things really late, like Wonder Woman. I don’t remember how many months went by before we covered. Do you, Graham?

Graham: I think that’s the best part of it. A year, Jody!

Jody: Yeah! We didn’t get a single complaint about that. We should’ve covered this to begin with. We went back and covered it.

Graham: The other thing is as someone who started out as a reader of Cinefex, every article I approach, I genuinely remember: It’s not just one article. It’s the continium of articles that makes up the ongoing collection that is Cinefex [that began] in 1980. And here we are, in 2018, still going. In a funny way, it feels one big issue to me. So every time I sit down to cover something, I do a reality check. This is just the next article in that sequence and that does elevate it.

Jody: There is a legacy aspect of it. We’re the record of what happened between 1980 and going into the future. For people, they want this collection. This encyclopedia, in a way!

[08:13] Allan: I think that’s a good point. Having such a unique design and such weighted, heavy, solid magazine, it’s a great way to stand out. I wouldn’t even refer to it as “a magazine”. Visually, it feels like something else and you feel compelled to treat it as a collector’s item. 

Jody: I doubt that there is anyone in the world who reads this magazine and throws in the trash. I don’t think that happens!

[09:33] Allan: I’m not sure if Don [Shay] had this vision of branching out and continuing the same formula. Or has it always been a magazine? Have there been talks of doing different things?

Jody: This brings us to one of the key things about Cinefex: You know how magazines have closed over the last few years. A lot of them just had to quit. One of the reasons we’re still here is because there are literally five people who do this. That’s not counting the advertising team. But the actual production [team is]:

  • Gregg Shay, Publisher
  • Jody Duncan, Editor In Chief
  • Joe Fordham, Associate Editor
  • Janine Pourroy, Associate Publisher
  • Graham Edwards, Senior Staff Writer

And we also have a great sub-contractor Jason who does a phenomenal color work. We don’t have a big building or staff. We’re a very lean machine. To do everything else — like videos — we’ve thought about that before; but we don’t have the staff to do it. And we aren’t willing go into a new tier as a company to do something like that. For better or worse, we’ve decided to do what we do well with our skeleton crew. We talked about, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could video interviews with directors.” But you have to think about what it would take.

[12:12] Allan: Yeah. There are pros and cons to both. The flip side you have access to so much great knowledge. In terms of having such a lean team, have your hired freelancers in the past? What pushed you in the direction of sticking with the core team? I think it’s great because you have that consistency.

Jody: We went through a period. Don wrote the first few issues with the outside help. Then, I started writing. Graham is the only head writer. With freelancers, we’ve tried it for a few years. It was an often frustrating experience. The same thing would happen: I would get an email from a young writer, “I would love to write for Cinefex!” I could see from their writing that they could write but I couldn’t see if they were self-disciplined enough. Most people are used to writing 500-2,000 word articles. Our 8,000 word articles are whole different thing. And the freelancers would swear on their mothers’ lives, “Oh, yes! I’ll do it!” And time after time, they wouldn’t even make their first deadline. So, it became an unhappy experience. We had a few exceptions! And then we found Joe Fordham who was a fantastic writer. And that was 15 years ago! There was no way we would let someone like that go. For the longest time, Joe and I would write every article until we found Graham 5 years ago. Joe and Graham are the only two we found who were so could and could make the deadlines. These days, we don’t take solicitations from writers anymore. That was not a happy experience! By the way, I had a freelancer solicit once and what the person turned in as a sample is my own Terminator 2 article.

[16:47] Allan: Oh, yeah! I’ve had my demo reel sent to my company. 

Jody: I called her. She was so lazy that she didn’t check who wrote the article. I’m so happy to have our little band of writers. We work together well and have each other’s backs.

[17:46] Allan: What would it take for someone to qualify and to make it into your company? What would you look for?

Jody: Well, as a writer: There is a lot of good writers. In the old days, you had people who understood the technology and then you had people who could write. But you didn’t  get those two things in one. A CG Sup could dance circles around me when it came to their knowledge, but they couldn’t necessary write. I think it would be easier nowadays because so many more people understand it. Finding writers who get it would be easier. We’re stacked up and I don’t see us expanding. Unless Graham decides to take a sabbatical, I don’t know.

Graham: As someone who’s written for Cinefex for years, I have to say: It’s the hardest job and the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. We’re not just writers — we’re research journalists. We know very little about heading into an article. For a typical article, I’ll end up with at least 40,000 word transcripts or more. And just wrangling that logistically is a big job. Then you have to tease out information that’s relevant. Is it going to be interesting to our readers? Is there a story there? Jody has a background in theatre. Joe and I have a background in film and narrative storytelling. We like to think of ourselves as a storytellers. We aren’t writing a shopping list and tell an interesting story. Juggling all those things with a tight deadline is a case of spinning a lot of plates at the same time.

[21:06] Allan: Collecting the information is one thing. But then you have to tell the story. What’s the birds’-eye view process? Can you walk us through how you’d choose the movie and to putting it to print?

Jody: Sure! Graham?

Graham: As we’ve hinted, there is a lot of moving parts. We have to consider:

  • What’s the release date?
  • What’s the delivery date?
  • What’s the studio?
  • Who are the filmmakers?

Above and beyond, we need to ask: Is that a film we want to cover? In addition, there is our publication schedule. We publish every 2 months. That has a set of moving parts. It’s like clockwork: All these gears moving together.

Every month, we have an editorial meeting which we do on a regular basis and we’ll talk these things through. We usually have a pretty good idea on what’s happening for a year ahead. That always changes because delivery and release dates always change.

[23:12] Allan: Yes, I’ve worked on films that would be delayed for a year or more!

Graham: We frequently have to do a lot of juggling. We’ve started articles and then we have to pull the plug.

  • Editorial meetings decide the content. We make our decisions and choices and then we divide up: Jody will generally do one article per issue; Joe and I will each do two.
  • Each writer will reach out to the studio (their PR departments). We usually know these people well and who understand what we do. Usually, we’d get an approval in a timely fashion.
  • Then we compile the list of our interviewees. There is an ongoing research that we’ve been doing leading up, so we know who the lead Sups are. Once you start talking to the VFX Producer, we’ll find out there are 6 more vendors on the show.
  • It’s probably rare that I do fewer than 10 interviews. For a big Marvel show, I’ll do up to 20. All the interview material then needs to be transcribed.
  • Once that’s done, we put it all back together in a creative way.

Oftentimes, you have to start writing before you’ve finished all the interviews. We always get the Director. I think Jody we’ve done that consistently well over the years. The key to what we do, we send them out for review. It goes back out to all the key people we’ve interviewed to check the facts. That’s where we tie up the loose ends. We do double check as we go along. All those things get picked up in reviews.

[27:53] Allan: You’re right: Especially when you haven’t seen the film and you’re being thrown all these technical terms — you’re trying to put it into a context — it’s tricky to decipher all the technical language. I’m surprised how small your team is, to manage so much; especially for something like a Marvel film which has so many vendors. 

Jody: That’s just the writing side. At that point, it goes into production. Gregg lays out the articles, Janine gathers all the imagery which is a huge job! You’re dealing with all these vendors. They need to submit the artwork to the studios for approval. There is the typesetting part and the printing part. There is caption writing. Don has set it up from the beginning. I always joke, “Cinefex wasn’t hard enough so let’s see if we can make it a little harder.” Our captions are never 1-2 lines. They’re like the abridged version of the article. Everything is proofread by me and Janine. Don still gets all the articles. He has the Emeritus status around. Janine just noticed that we had the moon landing date wrong in the First Man article which would have been mortifying to all of us, especially Joe. Thank goodness she caught it!

A lot of work happens even after the articles are done. We’re really picky about the press and the color. I’ve always said Cinefex is a harsh mistress.

[30:50] Allan: It sounds like a monster process to go through! The data gathering is one part of it. Once you’ve done that, you have to turn it into something else. It’s huge and impressive!

Jody: But for for all of my freelancer bashing I’ve done earlier, it is a lot to expect. That’s why once we’ve found a couple of people who could keep up, we’ve chained them to their desks and did not let them get away.

Graham: The last thing to add is we publish an issue every 8 weeks. In terms of editorial, we have 6 weeks to get it done. We can’t afford to wait for the approval for a week. Venom is an example. I was interviewing the guys back in August. They couldn’t have been more gracious, but they were up to their necks.

Jody: I am indeed now chained to my desk. What was that name of the movie with Will Smith? I Am Legend. We had to start so early and the magazine already printed — and then they changed the ending of the movie. Then we had the wrong ending.

[33:30] Allan: I preferred the alternate ending.

Jody: That’s another way the digital world has impacted us. Back in the old days, just for them to have the film prints, the movie had to be locked for 3 months. Once it was done, there was no way to change the ending. Nowadays, they don’t have to make film prints. It is remarkable how close to the release date that they’re still tinkering. Unbelievable! That’s changed things for us.

[34:35] Allan: I’ve been called in to change the ending of a movie three weeks before the film is released. It’s pretty amazing how things shifted. It’s scary!

Jody: They can distribute their movies a lot faster than we can distribute our magazine. It takes us a lot of time to do this.

[35:34] Allan: I remember talking to the guys at Weta five days before The Hobbit came out. They had 500 shots still untouched. Which I thought was phenomenal. They managed to turn it all around. That’s the impressive thing about Weta: They have the infrastructure to turn it all around. The scope of being so big, what would be the typical turnaround? I imagine you’re lining up more than one issue at a time. 

Jody: Well, maybe in research and background stuff maybe. But we can’t do anything until we have the okay from the Studio. And we have to be very judicious about contacting the PR Departments. If we contact them too earlier, their flags go up. You know how nervous the industry is about leaks. We cannot contact a studio 6 months before a Star Wars film comes out. We have to be careful. So as much as I’d like to say that we have more than one issue going at a time, we can’t. We’re working on the December issue right now. To the studios, December is a million years from now. For us, we need that time to get it done. Editorial needs to be done by the end of October. The studios often ask us why we start so early. “Entertainment Weekly doesn’t do that.” Well, Entertainment Weekly does an 800-word story on Tom Cruz. If we were doing that, we would start so early either.

Graham: Jody is absolutely right. As much as we publish one issue at a time, we do find ourselves writing more than one piece at a time. I was [covering] Arrival and Allied. And the timing got compressed, so I was interviewing for both. Unfortunately, they’re both single-word titles beginning with an “A”. I’m just staring at these, late at night. I’m looking at the titles and they look identical. I can be really hairy at times.

[39:57] Allan: With fake scripts, that happens a lot more these days, especially with Disney. It’s tricky too, with post houses. What they’re being told may not be entirely accurate. 

Jody: Also under the umbrella of the “Good Ole Days”, they used to give us scripts, believe it or not. And the script would be final. And then when then the studio stopped doing that, we had other means of getting scripts. But you can’t do that anymore. And they’re meaningless because it doesn’t mean that the final movie is going to match it. I think the statue of limitations is: I was writing a book about The Phantom Menace and as usual, they allowed me to come to the Skywalker Ranch. They let me read the script for one night, read it in my room; and then I had to return it the next morning. How to you writing the making of, if you don’t have the script. I couldn’t make enough notes. I snuck out into a Kinkos and I’ve never been so nervous in my life. I made a copy of the script. I hope nobody kills me for it! I guarded it with my life. I was scared. That’s my big confession. I referred to it a hundred times a day.

[42:49] Allan: That’s so cool that you have that history of going through these iconic films. Are there any fun stories you can think back on?

Jody: I think mine happened fairly recently, actually. I mentioned that I was in the black box for the Lion King and Jon Favreau wanted to show me some footage that they had. We went to the screening room. All the PR people were there. They didn’t think this was an interview. And we both slouched down in our seats and Jon and I talked for over an hour about everything. I wish my recorder had been on, but I had the most astonishing conversation. You know how you can look back at your live and count maybe 5 most interesting conversations you’ve had with someone? It was so amazing and it went longer than expect. He’s funny. He says his idea of directing is talking. We had one of the most incredible conversations I’ve ever had with another human being. It just happened to be him.

[45:00] Allan: I’ve heard nothing but great things from everyone who’s ever worked with him. And he’s got an amazing amount of films to show for it!

Graham: I guess mine would be a director interview too. I covered Shape of Water last year. I had an interview lined up with Guillermo del Toro. I had interviewed everyone else by that point: Legacy Effects, Mr. X and Doug Jones (the actor inside the suit). I had the interview with Guillermo. It was fairly late my time, he was on the other side of the world. All through that day, I kept seeing these awful stories about the earthquake in Mexico that happened that very day. I thought he wouldn’t want to talk to me. He was up all night re-Twitting information, basically acting as a public service for his home country. I thought I would get an email to reschedule. But no! I got the call. He was delayed for 30 minutes. I started the called expressing my sympathy, but then we talked about the film. He spoke eloquently, creatively, passionately for 45 minutes. It was just the most delightful interview by an amazing filmmaker who has just experienced something really traumatic.

[47:48] Allan: That’s so cool! 

Jody: The other kind of conversation [I’d like to mention]: I was writing the history of the Stan Winston Studio. I did not know this: Stan was very ill. I was this Winston Effect, about the history of the Studio. It was an honor to be chosen to write the book. Stan chose me. I went to the Studio everyday and talked to him for hours. I remember his saying he was tired. Afterwards, I understood why. Those four days, sitting in his office, were special. And the fact that the book got published before he died! It mean so much to him! He called me everyday and say, “Oh, I just read this chapter!” This has a special place in my heart. I don’t know if you feel that, Graham, but I think Jeffrey Okun is a great interviewee (www.allanmckay.com/78). He is very spirited.

Graham: I think he always makes for a great interview. There are so many quotes from him I cannot use.

Jody: Because we’ve been for so long, and we’re just a dragnet. We’ve been told things that would make stories really juice. We’ve always had integrity about that. I’m always touched by how open so many people are about stuff. It’s a nice position to be in.

[51:05] Allan: I look at the movie making process and how I thought of it growing up: It was magical. Everyone had their Star Wars story. I just tried to watch the film. And it was an amazing journey to watch these iconic films. I wonder what your opinion is about the audiences is these days.

Graham: I am not convinced things have changed. I think attention spans have changed, the way the younger generation absorbs the information. But I don’t think the rest of it has changed. In the 50s and 60s, the audiences were wowed. In 2000s, there is Star Wars and Jurassic Park. Every generation is exposed to something more sophisticated. But the key to it is always storytelling, isn’t it? The spectacle changes. The reaction that the audience has changes. But the story is still the story. The visual effects and the special effects are just the illusion, are they? You don’t want people to notice them.

[53:38] Allan: I think you’ve answered that perfectly! 

Jody: I probably have a different perspective to this. I’m slightly older and I’m not the demographic for these movies: No one is making visual effects movies for women in their 60s. I always try to recognize that. I do know how much effort goes into these movies. But I do think the eye candy is a distraction from story sometimes or a placeholder for a story sometimes. If you can wow them, maybe they won’t notice the story isn’t as solid. I would have to transform into an 18-year old young man to have a different perspective on that.

[55:16] Allan: I think there were phases in filmmaking where the reasoning behind a film being green lit could be [about the effects or] the asteroid coming toward Earth. I’ve always appreciated that less is more. I worked on one movie by M. Night Shyamalan. He was talking about Six Sense and that your imagination is so much scarier than anything he can make. It resonated with me. There is always that moment of showing too much. By not showing it, it would be more intriguing.

Jody: I’ll go back to Jurassic Park. This is the best way to say this: You look at that film now. They could do these dinosaurs a lot better now. But the [film] still holds up because the story is there. You can by with lesser technology because the story is there. But you can’t get by with a lesser story because the technology is there. You know what I mean? That’s why people still love it. The filmmaking is there, the tension and story are there. The wow can’t make up for the story not being there.

Graham: The next phase with visual effects is artificial intelligence and efficiency. It’s possible that the democratization of the technology is actually going to open up sophisticated visuals and the ability to put anything on the screen. To small independent productions by young, hungry filmmakers — who, perhaps, don’t care about hitting a wide demographic and getting a world-wide release — that could only be told by visual effects. That has a unique angle to it. But these guys with their tiny budgets and enthusiasm can now do because the VFX technology is so accessible now.

[59:13] Allan: That’s so cool! My final question would be: What are some of your predictions for the industry and storytelling? You have so much access to the filmmakers, what do you expect for the future? I know I’m not asking you easy questions.

Graham: If we knew that, we could hang up our Cinefex hats. People talk about VR being the next step. I’m not convinced that changes in terms of storytelling. As Jody said with regards to the Lion King, that’s how virtual productions are taking it onto the next level: The collaboration tools, extended workflows. [With] digital characters, I personally don’t think we’re there yet. There is a lot of people out there trying to get their hands on that Holy Grail.

Jody: At some point, I wonder if there is limit to what we can… We are visceral creatures. We need the sense of grounded-ness. I don’t know how far we can go into the world of zeros and ones and have it affect us. I always think of this example: One of the fun things about going to the old James Bond movies was this big action sequence at the beginning. You always knew that stunt guys did that. They jumped off that helicopter and skied down that mountain. I don’t know how brilliantly you can recreate that in digital world. I don’t know if that resonates the same way if it’s a digital helicopter and digital scope. It’s a big question mark for me. I do think in the same way that people earn for LP’s played on phonographs, I think there is a bit of, “I need a real experience. I want to see a movie that was made with some reality to it.”

[1:03:46] Allan: I think you’re absolutely right. I think we get desensitized by the artificialness. I watched Stand By Me the other day. You aren’t thinking about how they pulled it off. You’re enjoying that story. 

Jody: We did a thing on a blog the other day on the favorite movie of the year. My favorite movie was Begin Again, not a VFX movie. I loved in the Heart of the Sea, by the way.

[1:05:03] Allan: Thank you for taking the time to chat! Where can people go to find out more about Cinefex?

Jody: We have a website www.cinefex.com. You can get everything there.

Graham: You can subscribe to the magazine. You can buy old issues and there is an iPad edition. You can access that through the website. We also have video content. For example, with the issue 160, we have an exclusive breakdown from ILM for Solo and an exclusive breakdown from Marvel Studios The Ant-Man and the Wasp.

[1:06:17] Allan: I think the smart people are going to get both. And the latest Episode covers which films?

Jody: Alita: Battle Angel, Welcome to Marwen, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald and Aquaman. It’s going to be a good one!

[1:06:39] Allan: Thank you for taking the time chat! It’s been a lot of fun.

Jody: Thank you, Allan! It’s been great!

Graham: Thank you, Allan!

 

I hope you enjoyed both parts of this interview with Cinefex. I think it’s been my favorite Episode. I want to thank both Jody and Graham for their time. Please check out the first part of this interview: www.allanmckay.com/170/.

Until next week —

Rock on!

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