Tribeca 2022 Interview: Producer Annalise Davis Talks Fireworks

Producer Annalise Davis has been in the film industry for nearly 20 years, having worked on films such as The Railway Man starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. For her latest film, Fireworks, Davis partnered with Oscar-winning VFX master Paul Franklin, whose body of work includes Inception, Interstellar, and The Dark Knight trilogy.

Fireworks is a short film that premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. It blends Virtual Production and live-action filmmaking to tell a story about an MI6 Ops Room that is on the brink of completing a mission that involves bombing a terrorist cell in Tripoli. The LED screen that surrounds the MI6 Ops Room transforms into the scene on the ground to give a more realistic experience and allow viewers to witness in real-time both the people that will be impacted by the bomb and the people who are at the root of making the tough decision.

I recently had the chance to conduct an interview with Davis about the film and the production process, how the team was able to make the Virtual Production come to life, the future of filmmaking, and what plans are in place with the story that surrounds this short film. Check out the full interview below.

I love how this movie was made. I couldn’t tell how much of it was virtual and how much of it was actually filmed. How much of this movie was actually filmed and how much of it was a virtual production?

So, essentially, everything in the U.K. is real. Well, we shot the whole thing in the U.K – in a studio in the U.K. – so we never left the studio. So everything that is U.K. set – MI6, everything that is the building and the room – that’s real, and everything that is Tripoli is virtual. So that’s still shot in the U.K. but on a virtual wall.

Oh, wow. So, the Tripoli stuff is all virtual? I mean, there are a lot of close-ups [during those scenes] and the background is faded out, but it just looks incredibly realistic. That’s amazing! What led to the decision to make this a Virtual Production as opposed to making it all live-action?

That’s a good question. I mean, the decision – as it is with decisions with making all films – was lead by the story and the characters. The original story was a contained MI6 room – very claustrophobic and you never went out to Tripoli. But then, through the development of the script, essentially, the story is about these characters who are about to bomb a terrorist cell in Tripoli from an MI6 room in London. And they basically don’t care; they don’t care about these casualties. And we wanted to play with the idea of how we show the audience what’s happening, even those these people don’t care.

So we looked into different technologies first. We looked into AR and VR technology and whether we should have the AR people walking through the space, which would have been a totally different medium really. But then with the lockdown, VP technology advanced really, really quickly, and we were lucky enough to work with Paul Franklin, the director who has two Oscars for his work as a VFX supervisor. So, obviously, he’s an expert in his field. So, the minute we started talking about Virtual Production, we realized what we could do is tell the same story as a traditional short film, which was a real-time MI6 Ops Room just before a bomb is about to go off but break down the ops room through the telling of the story. So you see, for real, what’s happening. So you see the blobs on the screen, which they’re talking about bombing, and you see the reality. And we love the idea of breaking down the space. So, this one space, which you see in the beginning, is a 360-degree Ops Room, which becomes broken down and breaks into half Tripoli and half ops room.

And what we also loved about the idea is that neither side could see each other; only the audience is aware of both sides. Everyone else is carrying on with both sides oblivious. So we loved the idea that we could use the technology to tell the story in a more interesting way and also tell the emotions of the story and the themes of the story hopefully without bashing the audience over the head with it.

So the scenes where it fades into the on-the-ground situation, how was that created? How did that get made? It looks incredible when you actually see it come to life like that.

Fantastic! I’m really glad you say that. So, essentially, the way Virtual Production works is, it’s not like a green screen; everything is done in advance. So, everything you see on that wall, the LED wall is a giant television screen, and you put all of the digital assets onto the wall while you’re shooting. So there’s nothing done in post. Well, there’s bits and pieces done in post. But, while you’re shooting, what we saw on the day we filmed, you can see in the film. So, the actors can see it, the director can see it, everybody sees Tripoli.

So, essentially, Paul worked very closely with our really fantastic designer Jamie Lapsley and also the team at Dimension, the Virtual Production team, lead by Craig Stiff, who’s a fantastic virtual designer. I mean, he’s a real human being but he designs virtually. And they built that whole space, and what was brilliant was that Jamie was able to design the MI6 ops room space and the Tripoli space, so it all worked together as one. And then she worked closely with Dimension to build all the buildings you see, all the cars, some of the people are virtual. Obviously, the two main Tripoli characters are real, and we had some extras that are real, but some of the people are virtual. So Jamie was able to build that world for real, and she used Unreal Engine, which is built by Epic, who supported this film. So it’s all built digitally, and what’s brilliant about it is, Jamie is the designer and had the control over the look of it. Ollie Downey, the DP (director of photography), had control of how it was lit and how it was shot on the day. Paul is the director and had total control over it, and it was all done in prep. So what was brilliant and what the HADs had loved about it was, they weren’t putting something on green screen and then hoping for the best in post; it was all done in advance. So I think it helps lead to a really cohesive and organic visual look for the whole film that is very story-driven.

You’ve been in the industry for about 20 years or so. When it comes to making films, what is more challenging for you in your position – Virtual Production or live production? Which one is more of a challenge to get together?

Well, I love filmmaking. I love making films; it’s brilliant. So, for me, I’m not from a technical background and I’m not from a VFX background. So, for me, Virtual Production was totally new. So, in this instance, I’ve made a lot of short films, and I’ve made feature films, I’ve even overseen a lot of short films. So, for me, the actual putting together of this short film was relatively straightforward because I have that level of experience. The Virtual Production was a challenge because, in all honesty, we were doing so much for the first time. It was so new. We shot it in January of 2021. I hadn’t done it before, but, really, nobody else had done it properly. Nobody had done it to the extent of what we did and of the decision that we made to make this more of a realistic environment. Normally, it’s done in sci-fi. At that time, it was The Mandalorian that had been done, and not much beyond that.

The other thing is, we shot in the U.K. and there weren’t any Virtual Production stages open to us at that time; they were all being built. So we had to actually build our own screen, our own Virtual Production stage. And when I look back, I think that was kind of a crazy decision. But the reason we did it is because it was the first one; nobody else was really doing it. So, in that way, it was really challenging because we were doing something for the first time. And we learned as we went, and we made loads and loads of mistakes. But what was also brilliant about that was that we were working with brilliant people who were all up for the challenge. One of the reasons Epic supported us is because we were breaking new ground and we were trying to experiment with this new technology and push it and be all ambitious with it. So, for me, although that was incredibly challenging, I loved it. I loved the ambition that we had and that we were learning and making mistakes but really pushing everything we could at every level, and I think that attracted the same kind of people. So it was a brilliant experience, and the team we worked with was brilliant.

You said you were filming this during lockdowns. Were there any jobs that were remote while this was filming or was it all on-set? How did this work when you had to be physically distant from each other due to government restrictions?

Most of the prep was done remotely because of COVID, and that actually worked with the virtual stuff. We had many, many Zoom meetings, but for the shoot itself, it was real. And it was just the usual – we were tested and we had masks and we stayed two meters apart and we had a COVID supervisor. Obviously, that was an extra challenge amongst all the others, because we were at the height of the second lockdown. And if I could have delayed the shoot, I would have. But because we built the stage and had done all the assets, we had no choice; we had to just keep going.

We had a few hairy moments through COVID. One of our lead actors had a positive COVID test on the first day of shooting. I kind of knew because of what happened. I had thought, “I don’t think this test is accurate,” so we had to wait 24 hours for a PCR test to get him through. So, when you see B and H – they’re the two characters who sit at their desk; they’re like the double act. B had the positive COVID test. What was meant to happen was they were meant to come in together at the beginning and speak to Gillian live. But because we lost B for 24 hours, the writer had to rewrite the whole thing. So H comes in on her own, Gillian Lye says, “Where’s the other one?” and H is like, “Oh, he’s doing this, this, and this,” because we lost him for 24 hours. So the script was rewritten for that, but I think it’s better for it because you introduce one character and then the next. It’s a happy mistake, I think.

Yeah, it works well. It makes a good flow for the movie. Now, for short films, I know they mostly have their own contained story. But in some cases, they may be expanded into a feature film. Do you think this could work as a feature film? Do you think you could make it to where this turns into a two-hour film?

Yeah, that’s a good question. We are working on this as a TV series using the same characters and the same world. But the other thing we’re doing – me, Paul Franklin, and [screenwriter] Steven Lally – we’re actually working on a feature film that, although it’s a different set of characters, it’s similar in terms of the same theme we’re interested in, which is characters who are battling between royalty and ambition. It’s the world of sort of corporate corruption, and it’s also using Steven Lally’s very distinctive humor. It’s a thriller, but it also has dark humor like Fireworks. And it’s also using Virtual Production because a lot of people are trapped on a roof and we can shoot that virtually. So, although it’s different from Fireworks, it’s using a lot of the same themes, and a lot of what we learned from Virtual Production, we can take into the feature. So, it’s a really useful and interesting next step for us.

In terms of being in this industry, what have been the biggest changes for you and what have been the biggest changes that have benefited toward the future of moviemaking and getting something like this off the ground?

Well, obviously, the whole Virtual Production thing is relatively new, and I think that will transform the whole film industry. For me, it’s much more interesting than green screen. It also helps with not traveling so much, because with climate change and all the issues around it, the less we travel, the better. So that’s really great. I guess, everything since I started, we used to shoot on film and now we shoot digitally. I actually love shooting on film but digitally does make things quicker and you can do things like have more takes and not worry about film ratio. So, I think, in general, technology does help filmmaking. Everything being digital and everything moving to virtual production is helpful for filmmaking, I think. But I think, with all these technological advancements, the main thing is I think it should be ruled by story and character, and that’s the most important thing. And if all these advancements can help tell your story in a more interesting way, then that’s great. But I would never want to be lead by the technology; I would always want to be lead by the story and the characters.

Right. And I saw on the Tribeca website that this was sponsored by Meta. I watched this film on my TV and on my phone. Is this more of an experience for the VR headset? What is the best way to view this movie?

On the big screen.

Obviously [laughs].

It should be viewed on the big screen. It’s beautiful on the big screen; it’s great with an audience. It makes them laugh, and it makes them feel other things as well. The sound and the mix and the music are amazing as well. It is a film. Although we shot it in an unusual way, it’s a traditional film and you should watch it, preferably, on the big screen if not on a TV or a phone. There isn’t a VR version of this. We looked at that, but we didn’t shoot it as a VR film in the end.

Ah, OK. When I saw the sponsorship by Meta, I thought maybe this was connected to the Metaverse or something like that.

Ah, no. It’s because it’s linked to Epic and Unreal. So, yeah, they have the Metaverse and they have all of that. So they have the capability of doing all of that. But, as it happens, we made the film as a traditional short film. So it’s viewed traditionally. So, however we shot it, it’s still a normal short film that you would watch as you would any other short film.

Actually, the last question I have for you is in relation to that Metaverse question. Even though this is not made for that, with the Metaverse becoming a new thing, where do you see cinema-going from here? Do you think we could actually have feature-length films in the Metaverse and have more realistic experiences with watching movies in the Metaverse?

Yeah, I think there’s always an appetite for telling good stories. And I think the Metaverse opens up stories in a different way because you experience things in a different way. And the technology is getting better and better, so you can see the virtual humans that – in the beginning – looked like robots, they’re getting better and the data is getting better. So, yeah, I can absolutely see that. It would be a different experience and the stories would have to be slightly adapted to lean into the strengths of the Metaverse, but I can absolutely see that scenario that will be opened up for sure.

On behalf of Cinema Sentries, I would like to thank Annalise Davis for taking the time to discuss Fireworks and the process of Virtual Production.

David Wangberg

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