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Climbing Mountains to Make Lone Survivor

CreativeCOW presents Climbing Mountains to Make Lone Survivor -- TV & Movie Appreciation Editorial

Petra Holtorf-StrattonPetra Holtorf-Stratton

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Lone Survivor Trailer


"We are going to climb mountains" – that's what Pete [Berg] said to me when I told him I wanted to work on Lone Survivor. And we did, literally and figuratively. Lone Survivor is the story of Marcus Luttrell, the only Navy SEAL who survived a horrendous ordeal in Afghanistan during operation Red Wing: being outnumbered by Taliban fighters and seeing his brothers-in-arms die.

Lone Survivor had an overall budget of about $50 million; with tax rebates, that went down to $35M. We had so many challenges to get this movie done with so little money. But we had such a great crew; everybody did what it takes to get it done during prep, shoot and post. On Lone Survivor, I got a co-producer credit. I dealt with all of post, from making the deals, setting up editorial, sound mix, DI, coming up with the solutions, finding the vendors and making sure they are the right fit for Pete. And I did the VFX producing as well.


First fire fight - the Murphy (Kitsch) fights back, being out numbered ten to one! ©Universal Pictures.
First fire fight - the Murphy (Kitsch) fights back, being out numbered ten to one!


From doing movies with smaller budgets, I've learned to help the director integrate VFX. When money is tight, you have to come up with creative ways to tell the story. Maybe we can use sound instead of showing the helicopter to convey the same thing.


Filming Chinook helicopters at Bagram Airbase (Kirtland Airforce Base in Albuquerque doubled for it)
Filming Chinook helicopters at Bagram Airbase (Kirtland Airforce Base in Albuquerque doubled for it)


Above left, before grading and effects. Right, after. Says Petra, "We only had a couple of barracks that we build for the Jbad Forward Operating Base set - Image Engine added the additional structures and fences."

On Lone Survivor, we only had 400 shots, and I have a phenomenal coordinator, Harrison Marks, who basically dealt with the day-in day-out VFX work. We were lucky to have two great vendors: Image Engine, which I worked with on The Thing as well, did the bulk of our work and for one sequence where Pete really wanted best possible VFX, I made a deal with ILM for the limited amount of budget we had.

We knew they already had the assets from Battleship and they helped us with this helicopter crash sequence. It's not that Image Engine couldn't have done that sequence, but Pete really wanted ILM to do it. All the VFX in the movie are more than invisible – they're there to tell the story, but not be the story.


Petra and Production Designer Sean Hayworth in an ice cave during the shoot of The Thing.
Petra and Production Designer Sean Hayworth in an ice cave during the shoot of The Thing.


Cinematographer Tobias Schliessler did camera tests with the ALEXA and RED cameras. We did the camera tests in Malibu Canyon, which could have doubled for Afghanistan as well. We could have shot it all here in California, but the state never has implemented tax incentives like you get from other states like New Mexico or Louisiana. First and foremost, you want to shoot somewhere where you have the locations that look like your movie – but the other part is – where can I get money back? That's what everybody is interested in.

In the end we shot it with the RED, partially because the camera was more "portable" and after doing extensive sessions with our DI house Company 3 we felt comfortable that we would get the quality the movie deserved. The movie was shot in New Mexico, Santa Fe and outside of Albuquerque to double for Afghanistan – the vegetation is surprisingly similar, especially when you get to high altitudes. We shot a lot of the movie at 12,000 feet on top of a mountain and all the equipment had to shipped up by ski lift and then we had to hike and hand carry it to the actual location. It was a grueling shoot.


Before and after shots. Petra comments, "Shah's village was supposed to be hidden in the mountainous area – we found a great vantage point for the SEALs, then added the village to it!" Click on images to expand view.

Petra adds, "Murphy makes the run to a higher rock formation to get cell reception – although we had a field with rocks and boulders, none of them were high enough. So it was added in post!"


DOING WHATEVER IT TAKES
A lot of production people under-estimate post production and what it entails to get the movie done. I wish that more post production supervisors had the opportunity to be involved from the start, because it would eliminate so many problems later on – if you're dealing with VFX, you are involved from the start of prep.

My philosophy is to bring everyone on earlier, and I really implemented that with Lone Survivor. I flew one of the post sound designers out to the set and had him spend a week recording ambient sounds. Of course you record production sound all the time, but doing the sound in post and on the production side are two different things. On production side you're more worried if the actor is understandable and there's not too much background noise. But the sound designer wants the ambient sound, and the best thing is to be there on set to get it, especially if you have unique locations.


Scouting for locations at 12,000 feet: Top, Petra Holtorf-Stratton; lower left: DP Tobias Schliessler; lower right: Pete Berg with Production Designer Tom Duffield


Dror Mohar, one of our sound editors, had to climb up that 12,000 foot mountain, the same way we did during filming to get to that location to record the ambient sounds and the stillness. It's completely different if you record it there than generating it with samples from a sound library. Everybody has a library of gun sounds, but to record it in the environment where it's being filmed is very different.

As a result, we flew through our mixes. When sound supervisor Wylie Stateman started in post, we were 80 percent there rather than starting at the 20 percent mark. It makes a big difference. When Wylie and I discussed how to approach this movie, he was aware of our budget limitation, he suggested spending more money up front, to save on the back-end. We made sure during the first four weeks when we started our director's cut, we had a sound crew who worked with editorial to implement the sounds, the director got used to those sounds. When we did our first temp mix, all the sounds were there and we did it in three days.


Lone Survivor: The SEALs trying to escape the Taliban (Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch and Taylor Kitsch). ©Universal Pictures. Photo by Greg Peters
The SEALs trying to escape the Taliban (Mark Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch and Taylor Kitsch)


Another example, on most movies you bring in a music editor halfway through post. We decided to bring in our music editor from the beginning of post. That eliminated so many issues, especially as you go into the final mix. The music editor should be there from the beginning, and suggest music that's affordable. It doesn't help me when someone puts in the Rolling Stones in the temp mix and the director falls in love with it when you can't afford it.


FROM VFX ARTIST TO PRODUCER
I became a VFX producer and then a producer by coming up through visual effects. After I got a B.A. in Business Administration and Computer Science, I worked for a software company and then for a small graphics company. My goal was to become a graphics artist; I wanted to learn Maya and become a digital artist. But then I had the opportunity to work on Independence Day, managing the CG artists that came from Germany. I kind of fell into the role and discovered I was really good at it, organizing the data and all that. At that point, in 1995, CG was still so fresh and young. Independence Day only had about 200 CG shots, which was a huge challenge at this time; some frames took two days to render. I remember we had to involve Alias/Wavefront to help us render the frames because we couldn't manage. But the movie turned out great and won a well-deserved Oscar for visual effects.

I thought I would only be here for the duration of this movie, but afterwards I went to work with [visual effects supervisor] Tricia [Ashford] on Kevin Costner's The Postman as a VFX coordinator, which gave me lots of experience, especially on-set experience; later on, I had the chance to work with Kevin again as a visual effects producer on Open Range.

After The Postman, I knew that I wanted to produce. I really wanted to focus on VFX. I still had friends at Centropolis, which had a Visual Effects division, and I had the opportunity to produce VFX for a number of movies there. I worked on 61*, Billy Crystal's TV movie about baseball, Unconditional Love, K-PAX and Maid in Manhattan. It was a great couple of years.


For the Billy Crystal directed movie 61*, Petra had to go on top of Yankee stadium
For the Billy Crystal directed movie 61*, Petra had to go on top of Yankee stadium. Petra is also well-known for her work on Independence Day (1996), The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and Twilight (2008).


During Open Range, working as VFX Producer, Centropolis Effects got dissolved. But we were only mid-way through post on the movie. I went to Kevin and David Negron Jr. (the VFX supervisor) and said, I want to finish your show. Let me take the six or seven artists I have on the show and we'll four-wall the work at another company so we can deliver; we have all the assets built and I know what we have to do.

Kevin cleared it with his producers and Disney and told me to go ahead. I knew how many shots I had left and how little money to do it for. I went to Yu+Co and asked if we could rent some space and we finished the show there. Then Yu+Company asked if we could help build a little VFX division, which we did, with this small group of artists from Centropolis. One movie we did there was Roland's Day After Tomorrow; we did some sequences, my friend Conny Fauser was the VFX supervisor for Yu+Co, we both worked with Roland on Independence Day and at Centropolis. It was also funny because Roland's editorial was actually one street over from Yu+Co.

By chance, I ran into someone who gave my name to Tommy Imperato, the head of production at New Regency at the time (now at Fox). He called and asked me if I wanted to VFX produce this movie called Mirrors. The director Alex Aja was French and I was from Europe (Germany and Switzerland) and spoke French.


In NYC after the premiere of LS at the Ziegfield
In NYC after the premiere of Lone Survivor at the Ziegfield


After Mirrors, I got a phone call from Summit Entertainment if I wanted to work on Twilight. I had no idea what it was about. I had no idea it was such a huge cult. I got the script and thought it was cute. I met with [Director] Catherine [Hardwicke] and joined her as the Visual Effects Producer. The movie came out and went through the roof. How big it really was dawned on me when we had the premiere and it felt like a rock concert; people were screaming and crying when they saw the cast!

The first Twilight was shot on film and the overall budget was $37M. Our post and VFX budget was so minimal – we had no money for anything. VFX Supervisor Richard Kidd and I decided that, to get the most bang for the buck, we had to go to Canada. We contracted the shots to CIS (now Method) in Vancouver. Catherine had all these big ideas, and I had to tell her we couldn't afford it. She wanted these wild exotic skies, and I told her it would eat up our entire VFX budget. PostWorks was doing our Digital Intermediate, so I said, let's do test of what we can do in the DI with the skies, rather than replacement. Three-quarters of the skies we were supposed to replace, we did in the DI. It worked out perfectly and freed up money for other stuff that Catherine wanted.

Battleship was my crossover movie, from VFX into post producing. Kevin Elam was the VFX producer, but there was a lot of marketing material that needed to be done, and I was asked to deal with that side of things. Then I got sucked into much more: the Post Supervisor was on maternity leave, and [director] Pete [Berg] pushed me into that role. I got an Associate Producer credit on the movie.


SEALs getting ready for their first fall
SEALs getting ready for their first fall in Lone Survivor


INTEGRATING VFX & PRODUCTION
Visual effects are becoming an integral part of any production. Sometimes your VFX budget is half of your whole movie budget. If you have $80M for VFX alone, that's four complete indie movies at $20M or two at $40M. To put it in perspective, if you're a VFX producer, you're already dealing with lots of pressure and responsibility; it's natural for me to move into the role of producing. You're already working with the director and the line producer or UPM to figure out how to save money and where to protect the money.

The brilliant thing about VFX is that you're on the show from the beginning – you're one of the only people there from the beginning. Nobody else in any department stays on for the whole duration of the movie, other than the director and producers. The job is not just making pretty pictures, but trying to figure out how to get the movie done.


The SEALs on their way to do the recon mission. ©Universal Pictures. Photo by Greg Peters
The SEALs on their way to do the recon mission


VFX are an important part of any movie, but I'd rather have less VFX and more story than the opposite. It's always a big mistake when you try to tell a story with VFX; you need a good story and enhance it with VFX.

This is what we did with Lone Survivor; people will be gripped by the story and not even realize there are any VFX throughout the film. Because the story is so powerful and when you meet the real Marcus Luttrell and see what he went through, you feel compelled to make the best movie you can!






Axe (Ben Foster) and Luttrell (Wahlberg) help the wounded Dietz (Hirsch). Photo credit: Greg Peters ©Universal Pictures
Axe (Ben Foster) and Luttrell (Wahlberg) help the wounded Dietz (Hirsch)


Lone Survivor Photos courtesy and © Universal Pictures. Photo credit: Greg Peters



Comments

Re: Article: Climbing Mountains to Make Lone Survivor
by Samantha Pallacarola
I had no idea about this project, thanks for the post :)
Re: Climbing Mountains to Make Lone Survivor
by Carlos Martinez
so cool! I love reading stuff like this. I wish there was more production blogs around.
Re: Climbing Mountains to Make Lone Survivor
by roei tzoref
thank you for sharing this inspiring and informative article.
@roei tzoref
by Debra Kaufman
Our pleasure! So glad you enjoyed it! We always enjoy getting to speak to such interesting people as Petra!


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