Thursday, February 2, 2012

How they made CHRONICLE



CHRONICLE was one of those rare film experiences where you attend the preview expecting very little.  Then scene by scene, as the story unfolds, you realise you couldn’t be more wrong and this is something fresh and new.  By the end, you are leaning to your partner and saying, “Wow—that was fantastic.”
We left the screening with the children very excited and buzzing about the story and the incredible action and stunts we had witnessed.  The stunts and enhancements were seamless.  The best fun of it was finding yourself almost believing you were witnessing a reality.
Of course, it wasn’t real, and as I was so impressed by the delivery of this story, I thought you may enjoy peeking behind the scenes and discovering how they actually made CHRONICLE.
If possible go see the film first and then come back and read the technical stuff here.  I don’t think you want to know how they did it before.  Much better whilst watching, to instead ponder: did they really hire actors who could fly.


Most of CHRONICLE is told through the point of view of Andrew (DANE DEHAAN), a troubled but creative young man with a keen visual eye and a high-quality HD camera.  “So, CHRONICLE is not really a conventional ‘found footage’ feature,” says Director and co-writer Josh Trank, referring to the often grainy-looking “shaky-cam” movies.  “Instead, we wanted a very controlled, thoughtful looking movie, seen through the eyes of a talented young man.  There’s an intelligence behind the way Andrew operates his camera and captures increasingly incredible events.”
Andrew’s newfound telekinetic abilities add an unexpected dimension to his camera operating skills, which give CHRONICLE a one-of-a-kind look and texture.  “Andrew begins operating his camera telekinetically, which opens up his entire world,” Trank explains.  “His camera is, in a way, attached to his brain, and he’s able to make it float, fly and capture action in a unique way.  Halfway through the film, you realize you’re watching something you’ve never seen before, and then in the last 15 minutes, it just becomes insane.  It’s constantly evolving, from the intimate and grounded to the epic and unexpected.”
Andrew evolves from teenage insecurity to full-blown narcissism in a way that could happen to anyone facing his extraordinary circumstances.  Says DeHaan, of portraying Andrew: “When you’re given the ultimate power, and if you’re experiencing something that nobody has ever experienced, there’s a certain God complex that comes of that.”


To convey Andrew’s perspective, the camera operator’s team had to “unlearn” their carefully honed skills. Jensen often worked over DeHaan’s shoulder to create the illusion that the character is recording his experiences, when in fact a team of seasoned professionals was operating the equipment.
Trank gave Jensen and his team free rein to conceive new ideas, new rigs and mounts, and to create ingenious ways to suspend the camera to obtain the “telekinetic” hand-held style.  The result is impressive: graceful and subtle camerawork that conveys the character’s powers.  “Josh was so specific that he graphed each camera movement,” says Jensen.  “By the end of the film, the camera is flying around through the streets of Seattle (where the story is set).  The camera has amazing freedom and flexibility that mirrors the growing strengths and powers our protagonists have developed through the story.”


In much of the movie Andrew is only “felt” as the unseen figure behind the lens, so it was critical to cast the role with an actor with a strong enough presence to register even when not in view. DeHaan, a noted theater actor, had the requisite chops to bring the pivotal role to life.  “Dane is also a very naturalistic actor, which was important because we wanted the character and his actions to feel real,” says Adam Schroeder (Producer).
“I really got excited about CHRONICLE because it just feels so new and different,” says DeHaan.  “It’s believable, even though by the third act it’s depicting some pretty incredible things.”
The two other members of the newly empowered high school trio are Andrew’s cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), and campus king Steve (Michael B. Jordan).  As the story opens, Matt is a cynical, know-it-all, too-cool-to-care teen.  But like his two new cohorts, Matt and Steve undergo radical changes after an encounter with a mysterious force. 
Australian actor Alex Russell reflects on playing the all-American high schooler: “What grabbed me about the project was that the concept is so surreal; it’s about teens with superpowers but at the same time it’s so ingrained with reality.  Matt couldn’t be more unlike Andrew and Steve – they would never have become friends under ‘normal’ circumstances – but they become incredibly tight through their shared experience.”
Michael B. Jordan, who was a series regular on the acclaimed “Friday Night Lights” and has a co-starring role in George Lucas’ historical epic “Red Tails,” portrays Steve, who, says the actor, “is everything a teen would want to be.  He’s the most popular student, a top athlete, and is not far from becoming school president.  He comes into Andrew’s life like a guardian angel, pulling him into the school’s social scene, and Andrew starts to feel good about himself.” 


Trank’s vision for CHRONICLE was meticulously chronicled prior to the start of production.  Trank created pre-visualizations for every visual effect and camera angle, and wrote a detailed “Director’s Statement” outlining his plans, themes, and methodology.  Given the challenging nature of seamlessly marrying live action, stunts, visual effects and special effects, the pre-viz was a valuable guide for Trank’s department heads.
Trank’s mandate was to always keep it real.  “What’s different about this show is that it’s really a personal story; we get to know the kids especially well.” says Robert Habros, one of the film’s visual effects supervisors. “We want the audience to be living in Andrew’s experience and not thinking about how the kids are flying. The visual effects work had to disappear within the story, characters and emotions.”  


            The film’s flying sequences were extremely challenging and came to life through not only visual effects wizardry, but through the magic of innovative rigs designed by Simon Hansen, a noted visual effects supervisor who in the past worked closely with acclaimed filmmaker Neill Blomkamp.  Hansen invented techniques and rigs that created, says Trank, “flying like you’ve really never seen in a movie before.  It is really the most realistic flying I’ve ever seen.”
Hansen designed a circular rig that would simulate the freedom of skydiving and allow for all sorts of interactive lighting and elaborate flying moves, like corkscrews and somersaults.  The filmmakers wanted the characters to look like they were having the time of their lives flying.
The actors underwent extensive training to prepare them for the rig. “From the very beginning Josh wanted to do as much as possible in camera, live, and with the actors doing their own stunts,” says executive producer James Dodson.  “We had to effortlessly combine these fantastic live-action effects, which are actually happening, with additional enhancements that Simon created digitally.  I think that some of the shots we see in this movie have never been experienced, thanks to that invisible integration.”
The meticulous preparation, innovative flying rigs and intricate camerawork were critical for the film’s epic third act – a super-powered battle above the streets (and Space Needle) of Seattle.  The sequence features not only flight, but cars rocketing into the air, a bus smashing into the side of a building, and a city under siege.  Notably, Andrew’s ever-present camera, now destroyed, has been replaced by a plethora of recording devices capturing the battle, including telephone cameras, security cameras, automated bank teller cameras, and police dashboard cameras.  


It’s a high-intensity climax, leading to an emotional resolution.  But what about the beginning – where did these powers come from?  Trank and Landis keep it fairly mysterious, but production designer Stephen Altman enjoyed creating the location where it all happens – a craggy hole in the ground, in which rests a chamber containing a massive crystalline rock structure that emits wispy clouds of light.

Altman confesses that the creation of this unknown “matter” was a highlight for him.  “It’s unlike anything I’ve designed before and I hope like nothing anyone else has seen.  Josh (Trank)’s vision of the matter was that it was not of this earth.  We don’t know if it’s animal, vegetable, or mineral.  Perhaps it’s a combination of all three.  To design the structure, we referenced geology, biology, and organic and inorganic matter.”
            That set and what happens afterward will raise numerous questions for audiences – and that is exactly what the filmmakers wanted.  Says Max Landis: “Josh and I know what happened in that cave.  But in the movie it’s never meant to be explained.”


            In addition to the groundbreaking visual effects, rigs, and stunt work, CHRONICLE features some impressive special effects, including using compressed gas to flip two 1,000-pound vehicles thirty feet into the air, and then have them land and be destroyed. Another scene that many will assume to be CGI but was actually captured in-camera depicts Andrew gently raising his arm and telekinetically crushing a car, which implodes and collapses within itself.  The car imploded on cue, thanks to 20,000 pounds of hydraulic pumps sucking in on actual metal and creating an unforgettable twisting, wrenching metallic sound.
            Squashing cars just by thinking about it.  Flying. Wielding enough strength to level a city.  Who wouldn’t want to obtain these kinds of powers?   Who wouldn’t want to do the impossible?  What would you do, asks CHRONICLE, if you were Andrew, Matt or Steve?
            What are you capable of?


            JOSH TRANK (Director, Story) has been a film professional since age 14, when he began working as an editor for public access stations in Los Angeles. After graduating from high school, he was a post-production assistant in several L.A.-area post production facilities.  A few years later Josh made “Stabbing at Leia’s”, an internet phenomenon with over 10 million views online. He then made, with Robert Siegel, the critically acclaimed independent feature Big Fan.
            MAX LANDIS (Screenplay, Story by), 26, has been writing habitually since age 15. He has completed over sixty feature scripts. Max briefly attended the University of Miami. CHRONICLE marked the beginning of a year-long streak of selling spec scripts and pitches that hasn't ended yet.  The first half of the streak was commemorated by Max being featured on the cover of Script magazine.  He has many projects in various stages of development at the industry’s top studios and production companies.  In the future, he hopes to direct. 


  1. This is a FANTASTIC movie review! In depth, without bearing the stigma of "boring". This is a film I can't wait to see. Hopefully this weekend. :) Keep up the good reviews.

  2. Sean thank you for your kind words. I don't like long movie reviews but I enjoy a little background, so thats how I write them. I shall definitely try to keep up the good reviews. Thanks for joining the site too.