Here's what happened on set, and in the edit rooms, of some of this year's Oscar hits.
Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay: Spotlight
Producers: Michael Sugar, Steve Golin, Nicole Rocklin and Blye Pagon Faust
Screenwriters: Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer
In movies, as in journalism, it all begins with a story that needs to be told. When producers Nicole Rocklin and Blye Faust first encountered the story that would become Spotlight, they recognized its significance immediately. "It was obvious from the get-go," the producers told The Boston Globe.
The realization, of course, wasn't nearly as immediate. In 2009, the duo embarked upon a nine-year process of script to screen. After optioning the life rights to the six journalists featured in the story, Rocklin and Faust enlisted veteran producers and executives Steve Golin (The Revenant) and Michael Sugar (The Knick), both of whom shared the original producers' enthusiasm for the project. But it wasn't until the team brought on screenwriter/director Tom McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer in 2011 that the ball really started rolling.
Back and forth to Boston they went, interviewing scores of journalists, members of the community, and victims of the priest abuse scandal. It was through these interviews that the true face of the story reared its ugly head: the entire city of Boston had been complicit in suppressing or ignoring the pattern of pedophilia in the Catholic church. It was this element that was most compelling to Mark Ruffalo, the first ensemble character to join the project. (The rest, after his vote of confidence, followed suit.) "It was surprising that this scandal was so far reaching into so many different institutions in Boston," Ruffalo told The Globe. "To have continued for as long as it had, there had to be a lot of people looking the other way."
Despite its long lead time — in 2013, the script was even Black Listed — the production itself was of the typically harried variety. "You always wish you had more time," Gold told Deadline, "and we always wish we had more money so we could get paid more, but I honestly believe if we had more time and more money this movie wouldn’t have been any better. I think we made the best version of this movie we were capable of making."
Best Directing: The Revenant
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
It's no secret that the production of The Revenant was less than a cakewalk, but according to Alejandro González Iñárritu, it couldn't have gone any other way. The director set out to replicate the conditions faced by Hugh Glass during his epic tale of wilderness survival, which served as the film's real-life inspiration. Like Glass and his will to survive, Iñárritu stopped at nothing in his quest for cinematic perfection.
"A filmmaker's duty is to make the improbable probable," Iñárritu told an audience at the PGA Awards. "As a filmmaker, sometimes you are God, and sometimes you are a creature of the thing." This grandiose vision led to a shoot that was chronological, outdoors, and in exclusively natural light. In Calgary, which Iñárritu called "the worst place for any producer to shoot a film," this meant shooting in brutal sub-zero temperatures with unpredictable blizzard patterns and only one and a half hours of daylight. Iñárritu employed astonishing precision on set, utilizing every crew member and staging what was essentially a massive play in the untouched wilderness. "Every crew member had to be involved because we were shooting real-time, 360 degrees shots where everyone has to hide and run," he said.
After making it through a grueling first two acts, the snow melted and the production ran out of money. Iñárritu convinced New Regency to invest twice as much in the film, and the crew was able to high-tail it to Argentina, where they shot the ending. "There [wasn't] one day of The Revenant that [wasn't] difficult or challenging," Iñárritu remembers.
Best Cinematography: The Revenant
Cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki
For all of The Revenant's trials and tribulations, Emmanuel Lubezki is loath to say it was his most difficult film to shoot. "When I shot The New World with Terry Malick, that was rough, too," he told Deadline. "It was the opposite: very hot and humid and mosquito-infested. But The Revenant has to be up there for sure."
When Lubezki became aware of the challenging low-light situations that would be omnipresent on set, he opted to shoot digitally. "I didn't want it to have [film] grain, I didn't want it to feel like a representation of the experience of Glass," he told Indiewire. "I wanted to feel as if you are walking with him. I wanted it to be visceral."
"If we had shot on film, it would be a very different movie," he continued. "For one, we'd be still shooting."
Luckily, Arri was coming out with a new workhorse of a camera just as The Revenant went into production. The camera company allowed Lubezki to test drive it. Arri's Alexa 65MM gave Lubezki the resolution he needed to capture a complex environment in striking detail. "Somehow this camera truly translated what I was living and feeling in that place into images," said Lubezki. "Usually you look up into the landscape and it's never there—you're shooting fragments. But this one, because of the size of the chip [54.12mm x 25.58 mm] and the quality of the image [6560 x 3102 resolution] and how clean it is, it does feel like a window into that place."
Oh, and about that bear scene: "I can’t reveal [how we did it]," Lubezki told Awards Daily. "It’s like a magician revealing his tricks. It’ll remain a secret. What I can tell you, is to get there was very hard, but once you figure it out, the answers are simple and elegant. Very hard for Leo physically because when the bear is shaking him, it’s really shaking him at the maximum level you can shake a human body before the spine breaks. It made me realize how strong Leo was."
Best Film Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road
Editor: Margaret Sixel
"Film editing is not for the faint-hearted," Margaret Sixel told The Huffington Post. George Miller gave his wife 480 hours (or three weeks) of footage to assemble into two hours and what turned out to be a whopping 2700 cuts. How did she do it? "I have an editorial team — 25 percent are women — and a very good assistant editor," she said. "Your workflow has to be very well organized. You have to be obsessive. You assemble the footage so you can follow the action, rather than make it good."
But following the action has its limits. "When you've got a whole lot of stunts, you can just get caught up in the action of that stunt and forget about where all your main characters are," Sixel told NPR. "So I would deliberately go through the film and try to keep them alive."
For Sixel, cutting scenes without dialogue is a particularly challenging endeavor. The fact that Mad Max is 90% dialogue-free is not lost on her. "It was a relief to find a scene with dialogue," she said. It was also a challenge to remain self-assured in her vision film throughout contentious test screenings. "You can't lose your integrity because someone in the test audience didn't like it," she said.
"This film, I wouldn't say it was made in the cutting room, but it certainly did depend hugely on the cutting to succeed. I mean, if it hadn't been correctly cut, I think it could have been a dismal failure, really."
Best Visual Effects: Ex Machina
VFX Supervisor: Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Mark Ardington, and Sara Bennett
The third woman ever to be nominated for a VFX Oscar, Sara Bennett, along with her colleagues Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, and Mark Ardington, set out to create a new kind of robot: Ava, the sleek, understated fusion of humanity and technology. The team started with concept art that Alex Garland, the film's director, had commissioned from a comic artist. This gave them a specific visual framework within which to work. "There were certain things we needed to make sure we incorporated into the design to enable us to work in an efficient way," Whitehurt told Collider. Though the process was as streamlined as possible, it was iterative by definition. For five months leading up to the shoot, the VFX team designed and built, designed and built, and designed and built until each part of Ava interacted smoothly as a whole entity. "There was no magic moment where we figured it out," said Whitehurt. "It was always, 'Should we try this? Or this?'"
For a variety of reasons, the team elected not to utilize green screen once on set. "The practical reason for not doing that was because the shoot was extremely short, it was six weeks... There just isn’t the time to correctly light a green screen for each set-up," said Whitehurst. The psychological reason, he explained, was that green screen generally interferes with verisimilitude; Whitehurst understood the fundamental intimacy of the character-driven narrative and wanted the actors to be able to interact naturally.
Instead, the team attached rubber O-rings around Alicia Vikander's limbs which tracked her movements onscreen and enabled the team to "stick the robot parts back in later." The reality of the set, though, was that of an "enclosed glass box," rendering body tracking extremely painstaking due to reflections. According to Whitehurst, this was the most difficult part of the process. "No human being actually sits still," he explained. "We’re always moving, just really softly. It’s actually much harder to precisely copy that subtlety of movement than it is to do something much more action-centric."
Best Sound Editing and Mixing: Mad Max: Fury Road
Sound Mixers: Chris Jenkins, Gregg Rudloff, and Ben Osmo
Sound Editors: Mark Mangini and David White
"This is a very busy, dense movie, and our goal was finding what our ‘sonic focus’ should be at any moment," said sound editor Mark Mangini in Post Magazine. "You could be in the War Rig and hearing any of hundreds of different things, but George is always asking, 'What's the story saying, what one or two sounds best tells that point?'"
Part of the challenge of parsing Mad Max's chaotic soundscape was being able to toe the fine line between exciting and overstimulating the audience. For example, take the big chase scene in which Immortan Joe and the war party have found Furiosa and Max in the War Rig: "That’s a 20-minute-long set piece and it’s a full-on chase for 20 minutes. You have to find the dynamics in a scene like that so you don’t abuse the audience."
Best Production Design: Mad Max: Fury Road
Production Design: Colin Gibson
Set Decoration: Lisa Thompson
For production designer Colin Gibson, differentiating Mad Max from the other entries in the franchise was of the utmost importance. "There’s a fair bit of pressure in trying to make it neither a parody of itself or a pastiche," Gibson told The Young Folks. "You don’t want to try to do the same thing again, but instead to make people look at it again and realize that it’s regenerated and renewed."
The team started at square one: storyboards. They built out Miller's post-apocalyptic vision of vehicular characters, weaponry, and props on the page before ever touching the material. "The design of the design process always comes first," said Gibson told Creative Media. "We saw that we would get the truest read on this world if we saw the world through the eyes of the War Boys and built from that perspective: steal and salvage wreckage, assemble and power up, arm to the hilt, tilt towards beauty and fetish and then floor it."