If you’re trying to make a great 3D Final Destination movie that pushes the limits of the format and you can’t get James Cameron, the next best thing would be to hire someone who has worked for him and has a ton of 3D experience. That’s what New Line did when they hired Steven Quale. While you might not know Quale’s name, he was the second unit director on Avatar and Titanic, and he’s been working for James Cameron since The Abyss. Not only does he have a wealth of 3D experience, but he’s worked for one of the toughest directors in Hollywood and survived the experience.
Last year, I got to visit the set of Final Destination 5 and was able to participate in a group interview with Quale. During the interview, he talked about the 3D cameras and how he picked the 3D “moments,” how his twenty years of 2nd unit directing helped him shape the movie and the action, in what way he’ll up the ante on the death scenes, how will this movie be different from the previous films, why he cast comedians in serious roles, and a lot more. Hit the jump to read or listen to what he had to say.
Before getting to the interview, if you haven’t seen the latest trailer, watch that first.
As usual I’m offering you two ways to get the interview: you can either click here for the audio, or the full transcript is below. Final Destination 5 opens August 12.
Steven Quale: Sure. The pre-vis I’m no stranger to. Because on Avatar, we called the process vis-vis. Because it’s not pre-vis, it’s actually what the shots are going to be like, and so I was involved with that a lot. What we did when I first read the script, we re-worked the whole opening bridge sequence, and I took my twenty years of 2nd unit directing experience on big action movies and said, “How can we up this into an amazing sequence that’s believable, yet really frightening and horrifying?” And I thought what is scarier than being on a suspension bridge that’s 250 ft. from the water and suddenly the cable starts snapping and you have no where to go? So, we kind of went with that, and then figured out a way to build a sequence out of it. So, the pre-vis process was very involved, and in fact, it allowed us to figure out how to use these 50ft. technocranes which were built into our computer Maya program, so we knew that we needed an elevated platform to put of them on and another platform for the other where the ceiling was and how high everything had to be. Because it’s very difficult and expensive to build all this stuff when you don’t know if it’s all going to work in shots. You have to imagine 200 ft. towers with extension cables going way up on this bridge, and when you frame for your shots you take that into account. So, it was very helpful for us, and it allowed us to do the sequence where right now the bridge cracks in half here – this railing is still on. We’re going to remove this railing and create a computer-generated railing that bends with the gimble (the hydraulic operation), which will actually bend during the shot, and our actors will be running around as they see all of this happening. So, that’s what we’re setting up for right now.
Could you talk about the 3D cameras you’re using? We’ve heard they are the latest generation.
Quale: We got really fortunate. Vincent Pace and Pace Technologies just received the first batch of Arri Alexa cameras. They’re the latest digital cameras from Arriflex, and they’re amazing. Because of that, we’ve been able to shoot in low light levels and all kinds of things. It has a very cinematic 35mm film look to them. I’m really impressed with it. We’ve been very fortunate to been able to use these cameras on this project, and we’re one of the first films to have that. So, it makes this look fantastic.
The things you’re trying to break new ground with since you’ve been at the forefront with the cameras and have done things to push the boundaries. Have the each of you tried to push the boundaries with this?
Quale: Exactly. I’m a filmmaker first and foremost, and for me it’s all about the characters and the story. So, when I first read the script I said, “We have to care about these characters, care about the story, but at the same time I want it visually dynamic and stunning because I think the fans deserve everything, and if you give them great cinematography, performances with cutting edge technology, suspense, horror, dynamic action sequences, then it’s a fun popcorn movie.” You don’t have to compromise on any of these things. You can take a camera and shoot a scene, and you can take a camera and shoot a scene and make it beautiful. It doesn’t cost anything more. It’s just the talent of where to put the camera and how to light the scene. So, my approach has always been, “I’m a filmmaker. Let’s make it into a visual storytelling, and make it cinematic.” By using all of those techniques and being cost effective in how you do it, you can make something that would be a ridiculously expensive $200 million dollar movie; you can do the same things at a certain point. You just have to be very smart in how you do that, and how you use your resources, and how you have the visual impact of each of the sequences, and that’s what we have been doing on this project.
Well, the thing about Final Destination, besides all of that, is the death scenes – the exclamation points. Seeing the other films, what is your vision for upping the ante?
Quale: I feel that the more horrific they are – unexpected, yet believable and shocking, like “Oh, my God! I can really see that happening to somebody.” The better I thought they would be and the suspense too as well. It’s not just about showing the horrific deaths. It’s build-up. What’s going to happen? How are they going to die and when you finally see it and you care about the characters, then it becomes that much more important when they die, because suddenly you feel for somebody, as opposed to some character you don’t have any interest in, and then they get killed in some gruesome, spectacular way. That’s not as impressive as you really caring about this character, and this poor person gets killed. But there’s plenty of innovative ways in ending people’s lives.
That being said, the Final Destination deaths might be gruesome but there’s still fun.
Does the 3D allow you to have more fun with that?
Quale: Absolutely. It allows you to have some 3D moments, and I’m a firm believer in using 3D to enhance the movie and not as a gimmick. There are times when you can enhance it in such a way to make somebody jump, like the sound cue in a horror movie. It’s real quiet. The person’s dead. Their hand jumps up and the whole audience screams and they love it. That’s what they go to these types of movies for. You can do the same thing with 3D, as long as you don’t do every shot as an eye poker, and get ridiculous with it. It’s a great way to use the medium and to exploit the advantages of a 3D movie like this can give you.
Speaking of that, James Cameron has been vocal about some films not using 3D well and being too gimmicky. Did you go to Jim before this and say, “I’m going to make this semi-gimmicky horror movie” and get his blessing”? Have you talked to him at all?
Quale: Jim’s a good friend of mine and I keep in touch with him all the time, and his feeling and my feeling as well is that 3D is like a cinematographer using lenses. You can have some movies with cinematography like a Tony Scott movie, using telephoto lenses very stylistic, commercial-like, and there’s other directors such as Jim Cameron or Stanley Kubrick who used really wide-angle lenses, or Brian DePalma. Nothing wrong with either way. The same thing with stereo. You can have a real gimmicky 3D movie where everything comes at you, or you can have a much more restrained 3D in a movie like Avatar, which is more of an immersive experience. This film kind of does both. When we have our dramatic scenes it’s not getting in the way. It’s there and it’s very lifelike. But it’s not over the top. Whenever we have our death scenes or some of our action scenes, we open it up a little bit. It’s the best of both worlds.
Quale: Well actually because of the new cameras that we have, it’s somewhat more difficult than on Avatar, because it’s a bulky camera that is heavier in weight. It’s more cinematic, but we have a 100 lbs. camera with a guy handholding it to get some hand held dynamic shots whereas on Avatar, I just took the rig, which was like 30 lbs. and much easier to deal with. So, in some ways it was a step back, because it was a newer camera. But the newer cameras are so spectacular; it’s worth those sacrifices in order to make it all work.
You mentioned that with the newer cameras, you could get a lower light. Are there any other new technical advances?
Quale: It looks more like film – this is getting really technical – the depth of field and the image plane size is the same as 35mm, so you get the nice shallow depth of field that 35mm film would have, whereas earlier cameras are like a video camera, where you have greater depth of field, which means everything is in focus. With the film cameras less is in focus. The selective focus gives it a more filmic look, and that’s what we’re doing on this project.
Does something like that possibly add more time to the schedule, when you have to really go in there and get that depth of field?
Quale: The time is more the bulk of the camera being so heavy. It so long to rig it on another beam, or another crane. If you notice we have two camera cranes and two identical camera systems, which is actually four cameras total, because each rig has to have two cameras for the left and right eye. But what this allows us to do is we can have one lens on one camera and another lens on the other. Normally, when we make a normal 35mm movie, you could switch a lens in a couple of minutes. They just put another lens on and you’re ready to go. In 3D it takes about 10 minutes to change a lens. What we do is sync it and we get a telephoto lens on this camera, because that’s going to be my next shot. In the previous shot, I have a wide lens. So, I’m not slowing production down by trying to change lenses. You just learn a lot about things like that. It’s not impossible. But it is challenging in trying to deal with the technical difficulties of shooting in 3D. But I love the format, and I have been working on it for over 7 years now. I think it’s fantastic.
Quale: This is daytime. All of these giant lights around, when you get upstairs feels like it’s a total daytime Vancouver overcast afternoon.
How do you explain to people that this movie is going to be different from the other Final Destination movies?
Quale: The big difference in this movie is we spent an enormous time – and this is straight from the top of the studio as well as myself and the producers – casting the movie and finding the right actors to fill the descriptions and the characters in the script. I felt if I’m going to do this with believably real characters that you care about. We got lucky because we got an amazing group of actors that all of them are fantastic, and I ha d a joy working with them. I think it’s elevated the series back to its roots, where it isn’t just camp acting and cheesy. It’s believable characters in really scary situations, dealing with this supernatural force that’s killing people and they don’t know why and what do you do? So, I think that aspect of it (for me) has elevated it, in addition to my visual style. If you’ve looked at the movies I’ve worked on, they all have a distinct visual style that is par t of me, and I can’t make a movie without that. So, I’ve injected as much of that and made it much more dark and cinematic and horror-like in the climax and contrasting that with our daytime scene here, where you think it is an ideal beautiful day, then suddenly a bridge collapses. Isn’t that a nice, contrast of irony by juxtaposing those themes? So, I feel by doing that has elevated it to a manner slightly higher of what the previous one was.
With a film franchise like this, it’s easy for it to run out of steam. It seems with your fresh set of eyes, you’re able to come in and inject some new energy into it.
Quale: Yeah. We had a great crew, because everybody has been giving 100% on this to make as good as we possibly can. Again, I’m a big fan of horror and action movies, and I’m doing this because I love movies. I’m putting all of that energy into making it fun, because they are fun popcorn movies.
Does it help to have some other people who worked on the previous films?
Quale: Oh, absolutely! We had the same costume people, all kinds of people in the woodworks: “I worked on the 1st one. I worked on the 3rd or whatever.” So, it’s great to have that continuity and that sort of respect. You know, the first thing I did when I was approached to direct this movie, I sat down and re-watched all of the previous movies back-to-back to see what did I like and what I didn’t like about each of the movies. It was a very interesting experience for over 4 hours watching every single one in a row like that, and you learn a lot when you do something like that. I realized there are really good aspects about the films with this particular area, and I think this area can be improved. I just tried to make it all work. But at the same time, I took it with a fresh set of eyes that is me and inject my vision into what I think it should be.
How would you describe your visual style?
Quale: My visual style is Steve Quayle. (Laughter) Nah, I don’t want to be arrogant or anything. I like the cinematic aspects of gritty realism, hyperrealism. You want it to feel and look real, but at the same time make it interesting. The big challenge for a cinematographer is the more real you make it, the uglier it looks, because real life lighting doesn’t look very glamorous. When make it look beautiful and glamorous then it looks fake like a most Hollywood movies. So, you kind of have to justify that. Every once in a while in real life, you see a beautiful sun going through a window that’s backlighting somebody and you say, “Okay, I remember that. That looks amazing, and it’s beautiful and its real, so let’s inject that into the movie, and figure out a way to do that.” Kind of a hybrid of that, but also focusing on the characters, so you believe what they’re doing and try to get in the reality of them. You don’t want all of your energy to be focused on the technical aspects that you lose sight of the characters and story and what they’re going through. If you get it all, then it’s a homerun. If you only get the visuals, then it’s boring and you don’t care about the people.
Quale: Well, the beauty in that is I always felt that if you cast funny actors who are good actors, they would inject and bring the humor. If you cast just stand-up comedians, they’ll be stand-up comedians and they won’t have the chops to do the acting. So, we always approached it seriously, but get the humor out of it. People like P.J Byrne or David Koechner are fantastic, and they are a joy to work with them, because they add so much to it. At the same time, they are really good actors, so it’s a lot of fun. The thing that I liked about Final Destination 2 was the humor that it had, and I felt if we could inject some of that and some of the seriousness and the visual style in the first one and the third one – kind of do a hybrid of that, I think that would be the best of both worlds, and that’s what we’ve done on this one as well.
On the last film, which was also done in 3D, did you watch it and sort of cringe, or did you feel like, “I can raise the bar here?
Quale: I watched it and there were some things I understood in what they were trying to go for and there were others that I completely disagreed with that type of approach and style. I thought in some ways the 3D was underused and too much gimmicks that didn’t flow organically with the film. I felt we can do much better than that, and I think we have.
We’re told this was a very rushed production.
Quale: Yes. I had a meeting, and then I had another meeting the next day when they decided to hire me. I had to get my cinematographer and production designer just like that and you start full force. (snaps fingers) So, we went running from Day 1, because we already knew were behind. There’s so much work that had to be done to do something like this, and having just spent 2 ½ years on Avatar, I know what it takes to do complicated visual effects, the pre-vis. So, I immediately said, “I need to do the pre-vis. I need to do it right now, and I’m going to get the same guys I worked with on Avatar to help me.” That’s the only way we’re going to get this done in 2 weeks, and we did this marathon 18 hours a day pre-vis to get the whole bridge sequence done in no time, and that was spectacular. From there, we refined it and got it to the point that when were finally starting pre-production, we would have all of the elements in place, so we could actually build all the stuff and make it match to what the Lions Gate bridge looks like, which we got permission to shoot one lane of that bridged closed, and get some amazing aerial photography that incorporates the real bridge with all of the elements of construction that we had. It all worked out great.
Quale: It was the pre-vis company that did a lot of the key pre-vis. But it wasn’t really called pre-vis in Avatar; we called it post vis – because it was just what the shots were. But Brad Alexander, who runs the company, was one of the key guys I had worked with a lot. He’s a really talented pre-vis cinematography-type artist, and I worked closely with him. After we got the initial template from there, we switched over to a company called Prime Focus, which is the same company that did all of the computer screens and the 3D holographic table in Avatar. I worked with them a lot on Avatar, dealing with over 200 effects shots. So, they’re doing the entire bridge sequence, which again is spectacular, because they understand 3D. They’re really talented, amazing people, and I can’t wait to get going on the post productions phase, getting all of the green replaced by reality.
For more Final Destination 5 set visit coverage: