‘Grounded’ dir. Kevin Margo
Writer-Director, Producer, VFX: Kevin Margo
Co-Director, Additional VFX: Barrett Meeker
Key Cast: Derron Ross, Brent Meeker
10 Questions for Kevin Margo director of ‘Grounded’
CB: You wrote, directed and produced the film. Where did the initial idea come from, and did this change much over time as you made the film?
KM: The initial idea for Grounded stemmed from a few prominent life events. Primarily the death of my father, but also touched on repeating patterns in failed past relationships with women. While creating the short film, I had developed an interest in physics, quantum mechanics and string theory. In my reading of the material I realized they posited a wealth of fascinating concepts and implications such as the manipulation of space and time at high velocities/mass, virtual particles that temporarily travel backwards in time, extra dimensions folding in on themselves at the elementary particle scale, the multiverse,etc…I’m sure all these found their way into Grounded subconsciously.
CB: ‘Grounded’ is visually stunning. Did you draw upon other films, art, or visual references while writing or making the film that in turn influenced your visual style?
KM: Thanks! Yes many years of exposure to art and film had it’s mark on Grounded. To discern writing from visuals in the case of Grounded isn’t easy. I consider myself a visual artist, communicator and storyteller. It’s how I feel most comfortable conveying ideas and emotion. At times I feel language demands a certain level of consciousness and awareness that visual/audio communication can bypass for a more visceral emotional reaction, also leaving room for a more personal customized response to what’s conveyed onscreen. Filmmakers like David Lynch and Terrence Malick, PT Anderson and Kubrick are masters at this. 2001: Space Odyssey was a huge inspiration on composition/atmosphere in the scifi genre. There Will be Blood was another reference for expansiveness and editing/pacing. Also I enjoyed Moon’s premise of a clone’s quest for identity and meaning. After Grounded went online I received numerous emails from people referencing Melancholia. I hadn’t seen it until last week and really enjoyed the inward exploration of a character’s psyche contrasted against the obliteration of earth and indifference of the universe. I’m a trained fine artist so was exposed to plenty of traditional artists over the years. Delacroix’s compositions, Vermeer’s reserved delicacy and formality I appreciate. Modern art such as Duchamp’s cubism set in motion, Rothko’s color field paintings and my all time favorite Diebenkorn with his beautiful sense of structured composition influence my approach with representational art.
CB: You also created many of the visual effects on ‘Grounded’. Can you tell us a bit about how you approached the shoot, knowing you would then need to add lots of effects?
KM: We did a ton of RnD prior to the live action shoot. Camera tracking tests ensured we’d capture what was needed on location to recreate cameras digitally. For many shots the inherit patterns/details in the landscape was enough. For the freefall sequence, we investigated interior lighting setups against blue screens but I wasn’t thrilled with the test results from that. Exterior blue screen tests, shot with co-director Barrett Meeker, proved much better, but still felt forced when keyed against a digital sky. The astronaut suit was highly reflective of the surrounding environment, so it was imperative to film it in a setting as close as possible to the real thing so reflections would feel natural. The solution was renting a forklift and tapping the help of professional stunt coordinators to assist in dangling our actor 50’ in the air. This enabled us to shoot upwards against a clear blue sky. Wire removals would be done in post. We spread out a few bright red gym mats underneath the forklift to mimic the warm reflection from the planet below. For the scene with the infinite field of grass…we couldn’t film it all, but did purchase an entire palette of sod from home depot and truck it out into the desert. That gave us a 20’x20’ plot to film on. The rest we knew would have to be digital set extension.
CB: How did you prepare your actors for working on a film with so many effects? And did they ever have difficulty understanding what you had in mind?
KM: Both Brent Meeker (the Tender) and Derron Ross (the traveler/astronaut) were excellent to work with. To prepare them, we had shot essentially the entire film as previz in a controlled interior setting with faux costumes. An entire edit of the film existed prior to principle photography. So that was a great reference for them. While there are plenty of vfx, we did make efforts to place them into settings/locations that were quite informative to their performances…there was plenty to respond to on set for them. Being suspended 50’ in the air, even though not above an exosolar planet, is certainly a great scenario to let performance thrive.
CB: You seem to be a man of many hats: director, writer, producer, visual effects supervisor. Do you find juggling different roles enhances your work, and if so, how?
KM: It’s a mixed bag. So much of Grounded was new…live action shooting/directing (previously only working in cg/vfx) I had little experience with. Writing Grounded was unconventional…more of a conceptual summary with a shot list detailing the actions/intent for each scene/shot. Producing was driven by necessity, but I have supervised/managed teams of artists for years at my job (www.blur.com), so anticipation, planning and preparation I was well accustomed to. Taking on all those roles was a reality of the situation with limited resources available. There was an extremely low budget with no plans to hire a full crew (instead we had the help of awesome friends and family), but many of the additional responsibilities and time demands fell onto me to manage. In this context, the work was enhanced because I was in a position to cut corners and live with the consequences. This likely saved some labor, which allowed for attention placed elsewhere. Also having the skill set to do all this is quite empowering, realizing you’re not dependent on a huge team to execute the project. On the other hand, subdividing responsibilities to trusted specialists likely would’ve returned higher quality results. Having a designated DP shooting on a RED or Alexa would’ve been nice, especially given the amount of vfx/post work needed, but there was no prior experience with those so instead the trusty familiar 5DII and 7D were used.
CB: Your website (www.kevinmargo.com) shows that you have worked on the production of several game trailers, most notably the new Halo 4. Can you tell us how making these are different from making films like ‘Grounded’?
KM: The majority of work currently on my website is representative of the 10 years I’ve worked as a digital artist and VFX/CG supervisor at blur studio. Predominantly these have been game trailers and commercials. I’ve lost count by now but likely have supervised 25+ projects and a features length worth of animation. These differ from Grounded in a few ways. Firstly, I’m not directing those cinematics, so my role in the project is narrowed to execution of the cg and art direction. Concepts, previz, story, editorial and client wrangling is where the director focuses their attention. Also, the blur projects typically have been entirely cg with minimal live action. As opposed to Grounded with was a hybrid live action/cg film. Blur is beginning to take on some more live action work as seen in the Halo 4 spot, but still mainly focuses on cg animation. I think the largest distinction is between the commercial nature of blur work and a personal film like Grounded. It was free of external influences such as clients and consumers, only limited by available time and budget.
CB: How would you describe your directing style and are there things you are interested to experiment with?
KM: I’ve yet to amount vast experience directing, but I like the idea of extremely thorough preparation to enable freedom of exploration in performance and camera on shooting day. My experience with CG is a series of regimented/compartmentalized tasks assembly line manner. There’s a sterility to the process that has a tendency to result in coldness, formality, and void of emotion. Virtual cameras are composed independent of final characters/lighting/animation in a scene, and usually need some reverse engineering to make the composition work with the existing camera moves. While with live action, there is an amazing dynamic tension constantly between camera operator, the scene through the lens, the actors,etc…all influencing the other concurrently. A precarious feeling that’s tough to replicate in CG…so I’d like to explore that more. As a landscape painter, I like the idea of passive response to the scene in front of me. Just by internalizing the scene and translating to canvas is enough mark of the artist for me. As I navigate between these two worlds I’d like to investigate how one can further influence the other. Learn live action lighting/camera tips that better inform cg work. Introduce new technology and methods with an eye for CG integration into the live action arena. Finally, my directing style on a purely creative level…I want to capture feelings of atmosphere, expanse and claustrophobia, disconcerting psychological spaces, and introspection.
CB: Your VFX breakdown (http://vimeo.com/32438100) shows the progression of the visual effects process. What storytelling advantages do you think an understanding of VFX skills can offer filmmakers?
KM: The ability to do robust digital previz certainly can help planning for a shoot and maximizing efficiency on set. With this knowledge and efficiency…you can redirect resources elsewhere for a better end product. Creatively…it enables with ease and unconstrained the visualization of surreal worlds and scenarios non existent in reality. New forms of escapism.
CB: When you approach a project, be it a short film, a commercial, or another commission, what is it that draws you in and gets you most excited?
KM: I look for at least 1 new creative challenge and 1 new technical challenge on every project. This keeps me engaged through the entire process, not just on the front end creative. If I will be living with the project for months in post production I need something to challenge me through the duration. Also, the content has to be visually captivating with potential to explore something yet realized.
CB: What does the future hold for you?
KM: I intend to pursue more projects like Grounded, scaling up the resources and production as much as my pocket or the market will provide for. Grounded was one of the most rewarding creative experiences to date, a direct tap into my psyche, a rediscovery of pure self expression and the positive impact that has on my life. Communicate, connect with and challenge however many viewers are willing to invest the time. Have fun doing it.
Grounded vfx breakdown: https://vimeo.com/32438100