Filming with a formula: Off camera and in the production room with Standard Films
August 22, 2008
The days are getting shorter. Are you ready for winter?!
For those who are, fall is the most frustrating season of the year. The anxious wait for the first snowflakes to fly can be gruesome. In 2005 we had 4 feet in October, but in 2007 and 2008, we were gnawing on dry P-Tex for Thanksgiving, with barely an inch on the ground in Tahoe.
If only Old Man Winter were as reliable as Tahoe’s legendary snowboard film production company ” Standard Films.
Like clockwork for the last 18 years, Standard Films has premiered a cutting-edge snowboard film every September since their first banger flick, “Totally Board,” dropped in 1991. For 2008, ain’t a thing changed!
On Sept. 3 at the Olympic Valley Lodge in Squaw Valley, Mike Hatchett and the crew at Standard Films will throw a world premiere party for their latest 16-millimeter snowboard film ” “Aesthetica.”
Conceived amongst the powdery jumps and the kinky handrails of last winter, Standard is now in the final throws of labor for “Aesthetica.” And just like bearing down, awaiting the head to crown, it’s not all fun and games anymore. The heli trips, the terrain park sessions, long gone. In these final days of summer, all the heads and hands at Standard are focused on one thing ” the delivery.
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Standard Films’ ability to deliver the fantastic footage September after September is what continues to stand them a head above the now crowded market of shred movies. While top flight pro riders, epic shooting locales and gorgeous cinematography don’t hurt, Standard’s knowledge of their niche and a time-tested yearlong production formula is what truly gets it done for the fans each season.
In eager anticipation of “Aesthetica,” I sat down with Standard Films’ co-founder and director Mike Hatchett and producer Waide Hoyt to get the nitty-gritty on the days they’re not waist deep in pow and what it takes to produce classic snow porn year after year.
So forget about the pillow lines and the park, and get ready to flip pixels, not double backs. Here’s a glimpse at the dog days of Standard Films’ production cycle starting from the day after the last movie’s premier.
With the premiere party a hazy memory, the first priority is to get the DVDs into shops before the preseason and Christmas rush. Standard relies on an action sports film distributor to see that through, so once the authored DVD and cover art files are sent off to the manufacturer, it’s time to look ahead to the next project.
By mid-October the next film is the daily grind. Though there is no pow to chase, the hunt is on for two very important elements ” sponsors and riders.
Industry sponsors put up about half of Standard’s $350,000 to $450,000 yearly budget. The other half is generated from DVD sales and other projects. Producing a well-received film the year before helps win the sponsors, but connecting the dots with a lot of phone calls brings in the checks.
As one of the top production companies in the industry, Standard has no problem finding pro riders who are game to film with them. The difficulty lies in securing the very best riders and convincing them to eliminate enough distractions to spend the time it takes to film a feature part.
“A rider needs to commit a full season to get a starring role,” said Hatchett. “They might be able to pepper in a few contests, but no matter who you are, you need to focus the whole winter to have a well-rounded segment. The more sidebar projects a rider takes on waters down their part.”
Beyond riders and budget, the fall is also the time Standard makes a few decisions on heli trips and thinks ahead to locations they would like to shoot. But few reservations are made.
“About 70 percent of our shooting is day to day, “said Hatchett. “We could hear the snow is great in Europe and within 24 hours we’re packing our bags. I think the less pre-planning the better in terms of the snow being good.”
As the winter unfolds, it’s easy to imagine what Standard’s day-to-day reality is ” find the good snow and film the sick tricks. But the winter has its woes, and dry spells aren’t the only thing Standard is trying to avoid.
“Riders getting hurt is the single biggest factor in making the film segments,” said Hatchett. “It’s a pretty dangerous sport; riders get hurt too much.”
Among the film crews, Standard feels their track record for keeping riders healthy is pretty good, however. Hoyt felt their yearly “mission” helped this effort.
“Standard Films’ goal every year is to capture the essence of snowboarding that season,” said Hoyt. “We’re not trying to film just crazy stunts or put riders in situations they can’t handle. The last thing we want to do is get anybody hurt.”
On top of broken riders, broken cameras, broken snowmobiles and bad snow conditions add up to unproductive winter days. But with dedication, creativity and good luck, Standard is usually sitting pretty on enough quality footage to stop shooting mid-May.
Each roll of 16-millimeter film that Standard shoots on their Arri-S cameras is three minutes long. In a typical season they shoot between 350 to 500 rolls, approximately 1,200 minutes of film. Those 20 hours of film get boiled down to about a 45-minute movie.
As the film is shot it is immediately sent to Monaco Labs in San Francisco, where it is developed by the same expert snow colorist whom Hatchett has worked with since 1989. At nearly $100 a roll to process, film developing is a major budget item.
The lab transfers the film to a Beta SP tape that is embedded with a timecode marking each shot. Receiving the Beta tapes back throughout the winter, the Standard production team digitizes the footage and loads it into Final Cut Pro on Mac G5 computers. The now easily manageable digital shots are then sorted by rider and quality.
When shooting wraps up in May, Hatchett lets the riders know if they bagged enough stomped landings to put together a strong part.
“We let the riders see what they have, but they usually know based on how they’ve been performing and landing,” said Hatchett.
To grab a starring part in the film a rider needs about two minutes of ‘A’-grade footage, which is about 13-15 different shots.
To begin editing a rider’s segment, Hatchett and his fellow director, Travis Robb, sit down with the athlete and try to agree on what shots make the cut.
“Ninety-five percent of the time the riders agree with the directors,” said Hatchett. “But the boxing gloves do come out in the edit bay once in a while.”
A rough sequence is created with each rider’s chosen footage, placing some of better shots towards the front and the best toward the back. With the shots arranged, it’s time to add the audio.
Both Hoyt and Hatchett agreed that the soundtrack was the second most important thing to the film other than the snowboarding.
“It’s all about dope riding and a dope soundtrack. That’s how it goes,” said Hoyt.
The soundtrack is chosen by the directors and the riders based on recommendations, personal favorites, and the reality of what music is available and within budget to license.
“To put it simple, securing the soundtrack is a headache, ” said Hatchett. “Licensing music is a pain because the record labels are always really busy and snowboard films are not always a priority.”
Standard has had good luck getting huge artists on board, however ” the soundtrack for the “Aesthetica” teaser is a classic Metallica track.
The editing hours start to add up as the individual frames are synched to the music and the final shot sequence is decided upon. Hatchett puts a lot of time into making sure the progression of the shots flows smoothly with the nuances of the music.
As each rider’s segment is laced together, the overall flow of the film evolves, too. The Standard formula for what part goes where is based on quality and diversity. Typically, the second best rider segment opens the movie and the overall best part closes, with the middle features arranged to evenly mix the pow footage, with the park and the street shots.
Once the rider’s segments are in order and the soundtrack is set, the video effects and graphics are created. Standard has used some pretty flashy effects in films past, but for “Aesthetica” they decided to go simple and produce most transitions and the sponsor acknowledgments using technical in-camera shots, not fancy software. What video tricks are apparent are created with Final Cut Pro plug-ins and graphics applications such as Apple’s Motion 3.
With the film taking shape in late June, it’s crunch time for a title and a teaser.
This year’s movie title was chosen by Robb, Hatchett’s co-director, and heartily approved of by the featured riders. Hatchett said this was the usual naming process, as the director who holds the reins of the film makes the final approval with rider input.
After the film’s title is created, it’s time to tease the fans with the flavor of the new flick. Choosing snippets from some of the best images from the upcoming film, Hatchett and Robb create a short preview movie called a teaser. Heavy on iconic and dramatic imagery, the teaser is designed to be eye candy that fires fans up to buy the full-length film come fall.
It’s Aug. 1. The teasers flying the flag online, there are preview ads in all the magazines, and the film is … not quite done.
Though laid out with music and graphics, the roughly edited film takes significant polishing before it’s at final resolution. When working in the previous editing stages, the footage is kept at 8-bit, a lower resolution than the 10-bit uncompressed footage that becomes the DVD. Recreating the film sequence using the higher-res footage is exactly where Standard is currently at with “Aesthetica.”
“‘Aesthetica’ is in the final, final edit,” said Hatchett. “We’re working 20 hours a day recapturing the high-resolution footage off the Beta tapes, rendering the HD footage and the graphics next to the new 10-bit footage, and tweaking the audio a final time. We’ll put in 80 to 100 hours before the final version is ready to be authored to a DVD.”
When the DVD is sent off to be authored, the beers crack and the Standard crew raises their glasses to another successful delivery. The DVD cover art, the ad and promo materials and worldwide release parties still have to be finalized. But for the directors, the clouds have lifted and it’s a sparkling bluebird day. The film is ready for its world premiere.
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