by Joe Cellini, published on Friday, May 23rd, 2008 @ 5:04 pm|
As one of Canadas most celebrated independent filmmakers (Roadkill, Highway 61, Hard Core Logo), director Bruce McDonald has bootstrapped his share of edgy movies. But none so creatively, or literally, as his latest film, The Tracey Fragments, adapted from the novel of the same name by Maureen Medved.
I loved the novel, loved Traceys voice, so I optioned the book with a pair of cowboy boots, as I was between jobs at the time, says McDonald, who mailed his boots to Medved to seal the deal. When, months later, Medved delivered an excellent first draft script, McDonald showed it to producer Sarah Timmins, who put even more significant skin in the game by securing financing.
I fell in love with the character of Tracey Berkowitz, says Timmins. It was just such a rare depiction of a strong complicated young woman coming of age in a very unusual way. I knew that I had to make the film happen.
But McDonald and Timmins knew also that persuading an audience to follow 15-year-old Tracey "just a normal girl who hates herselfacross a harrowing story arc required a leading actress of considerable force and skill. The film needed to be grounded by a bravura performance from a very young actor, or people wouldn't relate to Tracey and her journey, says Timmins. So they counted themselves blessed when Ellen Page, the actress both considered perfect for Tracey, committed to playing the role.
With his first-choice actress set to interpret a first-rate script, McDonald seemed set up for a smooth, straight run to an exceptional cinematic result. But bringing Tracey to the screen got a little more crooked and a lot more interesting when McDonald, no big fan of the smooth and the straight, decided to tell Traceys story using dynamic, layered split screens in nearly every frame of the film.
He reasoned that the technique inspired by sources as diverse as The Thomas Crown Affair, The Boston Strangler, a Beastie Boys video, and Piet Mondrian's grid paintings represented his best chance of giving visual expression to the state of Traceys mind, the real subject of both the script and the novel.
By editing the film in this split screen fractured/Cubist/Pop Art kind of way, we felt that we could capture Traceys interior emotional state quite well, says McDonald.
Feeding the Frames
But McDonalds decision to go multi-frame required enormous adjustments in production and post. Consulting with Director of Photography Steve Cosens, McDonald decided to shoot Tracey" on a small handheld digital camera, the Panasonic DVX 100 in 14 days, traveling in two vans to various locations that looked like Winnipeg, the films setting.
Cosens is an absolute master at shooting with natural light and making the image look like a stunningly composed Renoir, says McDonald. This camera choice and approach to cinematography allowed us to remain close and intimate with Tracey, to easily travel in her different worlds high school, malls, donut shops, back streets, scumbag bars. It also allowed us to capture many setups, frames that would be employed in the hungry split screen technique, which required a wide variety of images.
Aware that his plan for radical visual exposition would require a sustained, almost athletic feat of editing, McDonald created a six-month serial workflow that leveraged the skills of a team of editors Jeremy Munce, Gareth C. Scales, and Matthew Hannam each editing in turn, and then together.
Selecting Final Cut Pro as the engine of that workflow was a given. There was no other choice, says Munce, McDonalds designated lead off editor. I've worked predominantly in Final Cut Pro since it was released, so my adeptness and control on another platform wouldn't be nearly as fluid. Also, Final Cut Pro has fantastic layering abilities and an almost tactile ease when youre navigating multiple tracks and multiple frames on screen, using the wireframes in the Canvas.
Confident that he had the talent and tools to execute his split-frame vision, McDonald asked Munce to test it first by creating rushes in Final Cut Pro that would determine whether the multi-framing efficiently conducted Pages intense performance. One of my fears though was that the boxes would overshadow the emotional content, he says. But he came away convinced of the viability of his visual conceit and his teams ability to execute it.
McDonald moved on to another directing job (Killer Wave, about tidal waves attacking America) to help pay Traceys way through post, while checking in with the editors for weekly reviews. I essentially gave them permission to make it their own, he says. My job as director was to set them free and let them create, which they did, to stunning effect.
Munce cut a rough in a couple of months, working out a first pass solution to the give-and-go challenges of split-screen exposition. The challenge was to keep the story unfolding well, he says. We knew we would be able to get the audience lost and confused a little because that is Tracey's state of mind for much of the film. The key was to maintain a balance between Tracey's very real disorientation and the direct emotional orientation that the multi-framing achieved.
The key challenge for Scales, the second designated editor in McDonalds post relay, was making sure to never let the multi-framing become a gimmick. We wanted to make sure that people related to Tracey on an emotional level before anything else. The multi-framing was always meant to help tell her story, not to become the story.
Iterating and reiterating in the Final Cut Pro project files, Munce and Scales cut to a solution that effectively told Traceys story while literally reflecting her state of mind.
Tracey's in pieces, and so is the film, says Munce. That's the simplest, literal analysis. Throughout, we are watching her piece herself back together until she is finally able to see the consequences of her actions and admit to herself what she has done.
Putting Tracey together again was helped significantly when assistant editor Matt Hannam quickly graduated to become the third member of the editing team while working on particularly complex multi-frame transition scenes, dubbed blooms by the editors. One particular bloom sequence used all 99 available tracks of Final Cut Pro, generating nearly 200 minutes of running footage inside two minutes of actual running time.
But Hannam points out that most of the complex effects in the movie were created using Final Cut Pros crop tool and the luma and color keys: We used keyframing in the Color Corrector to create the really psychedelic sequences, but generally the effects were done in the most basic way possible
McDonald credits that leverage with helping bring Tracey to the screen exactly as he wanted audiences to see it. Whatever we thought to do with Final Cut Pro, we could do, he says. In a way, the film looks like it does because of that radical fluidity. We could not have achieved our vision without it.