Interview with David F. Sandberg

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David F. Sandberg is a rare breed in Hollywood – a director who does his own visual effects. In fact, he’s a one-man film studio! Have a look at his Youtube channel and prepare for a crash course in filmmaking. Seriously, I’m not kidding. It’s some of the most inspirational behind-the-scenes clips I’ve ever seen.

Originally from Sweden, David first began capturing attention in 2013 with Lights Out, a two and a half minute short film shot in his apartment together with, and starring, his wife Lotta Losten. Hollywood took notice, and while David and Lotta continued making short horror films in their apartment, he was also working with one of Hollywood’s most successful horror producers, James Wan, to turn Lights Out into a feature. Released in 2016 and bringing in a worldwide gross of just under $150 million, David officially arrived as a director. Now living in Los Angeles, David’s next feature is Annebelle: Creation, which tells the story of how the terrifying doll of the first Annabelle movie (2014) came to be. The movie opens in the US on August 11, 2017.

Watching those Youtube behind-the-scenes clips I mentioned earlier, it should be easy to see why I wanted David to be the first person I interviewed for OpenVisualFX – he’s a Blender user! And not just on his short films. He’s created entire shots from scratch for both Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation. In fact, the very first shot of Lights Out has Blender written all over it, as it starts with a digital push in on a CG streetlamp and pans down to a building with many tracked in enhancements (although, as with any great visual effects shot, you can’t tell).

Ok, enough yapping by me! I’m thrilled to present the first OpenVisualFX interview with director David F. Sandberg.
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Let’s start at the beginning. Growing up in Sweden, what films influenced you? Was there a certain movie that really captured your imagination and changed your life?

A lot of 80’s action and sci-fi since that’s when I grew up. Aliens, Die Hard, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Terminator, Predator, The Thing. A lot of movies that I still love. I also watched a lot of Marx Brothers films. I was a weird kid. I can’t point to a certain movie and say “that’s the one that made me want to be a filmmaker” since I’ve wanted to make films as far back as I can remember.

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How did you get started making your first films?

I borrowed my dad’s videocamera and started making little films with friends. The first might have been when I was 7 perhaps. In my 20s I was able to buy a Mini-DV camera and now I could edit digitally which opened up a whole new world with possibilities.

Tell us about your short films. It seems like every time an idea pops into your head, you grab your camera and make it a reality!

Pretty much, yeah. I used to do a lot of little VFX tests but you can’t really do anything with them. Cam Closer started as a test for an idea I had about a camera that could see the future but I figured instead of doing yet another VFX test, let’s add a little story to it and make it a short.

What about the camera rig you use for these short films. It seems simple and small but very flexible. Can you give us a rundown of your equipment?

It’s continually evolved. Cam Closer was shot on the Panasonic GH1 which I bought because you were able to hack it and get higher bitrates. Most of the other shorts were shot on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera rigged with cheap parts found on ebay. The latest one we shot was with the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera. I bought that since I’d left my Cinema Camera in Sweden and really missed shooting stuff. Now I have the Blackmagic Ursa Mini 4.6K but I have yet to shoot a short on it.
Audio I’ve always added in post and recorded with Rode mics on Zoom recorders.
For lighting I’ve used paper lanterns from Ikea and cheap Redhead knockoffs from ebay that fall apart if you look at them wrong.

To get even more specific, what about the lenses you use? Do you have a few, or just one good all-purpose lens?

The one I use the most is a Sigma 18-35 f1.8 lens which is awesome. When I need to go wider I have a Tokina 11-16 f2.8. I also have a Nikon 50 f1.8 that I occasionally use. Those are the only 3 lenses I brought with me from Sweden and haven’t really felt the need for any others. Might be nice to have something longer at some point.

So how did Hollywood find you? What happened with the Lights Out short film that brought it to their attention?

It went viral online. I’ve found that people here are always on the lookout for things going viral online. It was insane how a two and a half minute short could get so much attention. It was a few weeks of constant emails and calls with people in Hollywood. Agents, managers, producers, studios. It was during this period that I came into contact with producer Lawrence Grey who eventually got James Wan involved. And since James is close with New Line and Warner Bros he suggested we take it there. About a year after the short went viral and a lot of back and forth with my agents making a deal, my wife and I were suddenly in Hollywood about to get into pre-production on the feature. About sixteen months after that the film was in theaters around the world. Things went incredibly fast which everyone tells me is absolutely not how it usually works in Hollywood.

When it came to turning the short film into a feature, what was your story/writing process like? How did you go about expanding on the original idea?

I wrote a treatment of about 15 pages or so that Eric Heisserer then based his screenplay on. That treatment came out very easily and quick. I’ve been wanting to make a feature since forever and now that I finally had the chance it just poured out of me.
It was a very surreal feeling to then read the script Eric wrote since I knew the basic story and some of the details but I would then be surprised by things added or changed.

That does sound surreal! Did you both then spend a long time changing and refining the script?

Not really, the movie went into production really quickly. There were of course some producer and studio notes and things always change on set. Eric was on set every day I think and sometimes he’d come and pitch me alternate lines and stuff.

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How was making the transition to a big Hollywood feature? What kinds of things did you enjoy about it and what challenges were there?

It was definitely more stressful than enjoyable. The challenge was the fact that I’d never been on a film set before and didn’t know how things worked. All I knew were things I’d seen in behind the scenes clips on DVDs and such. I had to learn how to work with people, to communicate what I wanted done. Since I’d done so much myself before, everything from shooting to scoring, I had no experience communicating that stuff. I did get pretty depressed a week into shooting. I put so much pressure on myself thinking “this is my one shot, I can’t blow it”. The sometimes 15 hour days didn’t help either.
My second film, Annabelle: Creation, was much more enjoyable. I’d already done a movie that thankfully turned out to be a hit so there was much less pressure. Now I also knew how things worked on set and what the whole process was. I’d learned that it’s not the end of the world if you don’t manage to get everything on the days shooting schedule. You can pick it up another day or even ask the studio for an extra day. And there’s always additional photography later on if you find that you’re missing something.

Visual effects credits are conspicuously missing from your IMDB page. Have you ever thought about doing visual effects work professionally?

No. I’ve always wanted to direct. VFX is something I enjoy and have always been interested in but I think for me it would be torture to be that closely involved with films without being able to direct. It doesn’t seem like it’s the healthiest of industries either which sucks because films are so dependent on VFX these days and yet VFX houses are going out of business. At the same time I’m doing VFX shots myself for my movies so I’m not exactly helping…

How was it working with the Aaron Sims company on Lights Out? Did you get a chance to visit their facility and watch over their shoulders as they worked?

No, not while they worked on the film. They outsourced a lot of stuff anyway so the people working on it were all over the world. I’d say the majority of the effects were roto, split screens, painting out stuff, things like that.

I love that even though your films are getting larger in scope and budget, you’re still releasing behind the scenes stuff on your own Youtube channel. And It’s great to see you still doing your own visual effects, as well. Were there any studio politics involved in being able to do your own visual effects for either of your feature films, or was it easy to convince the producers to agree to let you do a few shots?

During shooting of Lights Out I was frustrated because I’d want to shoot something as a simple split screen or a simple paint out and was told “no, that’s not budgeted for”. Things that I could do myself super easy but I got the impression that wasn’t allowed. But then in post I found out that nobody had any problems with me doing shots myself. Unfortunately for VFX people they don’t have a union which means anyone on a film production can do VFX.
Before I started Annabelle: Creation I made sure to check with Warner Bros VFX, the ones who hire VFX vendors and oversees everything at the studio. I said “if I come up with VFX shots on set that are not budgeted for but I know I can do myself, are you ok with me doing that?”. And they had no problem with that. I mean it saves them money since I do it for free.

Let’s talk about Blender. How did you first come across it, and had you known any other 3D programs before that?

I’d heard about it online, this free and open source 3D software. Free sounded great to me as a broke filmmaker. I’d dabbled a little bit in 3DS Max before then. Just little tests here and there.

How did you begin learning it, and what were your first projects like?

It took a few installs before I got the hang of it. I would go “alright, time to learn Blender!” and then there were a million shortcuts you had to learn and everything was very intimidating so I’d soon give up and uninstall. I think the new interface in version 2.5 really helped to make it feel at least a little better. I don’t remember what I did first but camera projection has always been important so I imagine I started trying that out pretty quick.

As you got into more advanced visual effects work, where did you learn those techniques? Did you you struggle in any particular areas?

Usually I would get going on something and then Google whatever thing that got me stuck or I needed to find out. Things like how do I create a shadow catcher type surface in Cycles. Blender Guru would be someone who came up a lot in my searches.
Textures in the Blender Internal renderer I’ve been confused by a lot. It’s not that hard but it’s just a lot less intuitive than how it works in Cycles.

Do you know your way around most aspects of Blender, or do you find yourself only learning what is necessary to accomplish what you need?

There are certain parts that I’m less familiar with. I haven’t used the game engine for anything, very little sculpting (although I want to get better at that), I don’t use the video editor. I think I have a pretty good overall knowledge of it though. Even if you start out learning very particular things it bleeds into other areas as well.

Are there any visual effects techniques you still want to learn or improve your skills on?

I really need to learn more about just straight up modeling and sculpting. I’ve always been more of a 2D guy doing drawings rather than modeling.

Are you active in the Blender community online at all?

Not active as in participating in discussion, no. I mostly just lurk here and there.

You created your own grain node for Blender’s compositor. Do you have any other custom tools?

Not really. Before Cycles could have animated textures I had to make a complicated batch setup that would render out an image, change the texture, render the next image, etc. Thankfully that’s been a feature for a while now. And a proper shadow catcher in Cycles I’m very excited about.

What other software do you prefer to use? For painting and retouching, editing, sound, coloring, etc.

Krita is my favorite drawing software. The brush engine is fantastic and I can do a lot of things I would otherwise use Photoshop for. I’ve bought and I’m getting to know Affinity as a Photoshop replacement since I’m just not a fan of subscription based software.
I’m using Davinci Resolve more and more now that it’s becoming a full editor. I have HitFilm for quick temps and stuff. I never use it for finals though. I use Fusion for compositing and VFX. Mocha Pro for 2D tracking. Reaper for everything audio.
I haven’t done any 2D animation for quite some time now but when I did/do I use Moho (formerly Anime Studio Pro).

Fusion, that’s interesting. It’s great that they’ve made it free now, although I haven’t used it myself since working on Sin City. What do you think of Fusion? Do you find it has any specific strengths or weaknesses?

I think it’s great. Blender is faster for creating 3D and camera projections but for comping it’s great. The biggest strength is that it’s node based and I feel it was pretty easy to learn. Although I’d had a lot of node practice in Blender.

Do you still use Blender’s compositor for anything?

I mostly just create a bunch of file output nodes for various render layers and passes and then deal with that separately.

What about Gimp? Have you ever used it, and if not, is there a reason you’ve stayed away from it?

I never started using it since it didn’t support 16 bit images. That might have changed by now but I can do anything I need in Krita and Affinity Photo.

Shade VFX is doing the visual effects for Annabelle: Creation, correct? How is it working with them? Are they still working on the film now?

The film is all done. It’s been great working with Shade. Knowing how these shots are made though you feel like an asshole when you keep sending back shots with notes until you’re on version 60 or something. But the good thing about having some knowledge about VFX is that you can come up with solutions together and it’s not just a “go fix this” and you give them impossible tasks just because you don’t know better. There’s one shot in the film that I felt sorry for the artist who did it and people won’t even know it’s a VFX shot. We had a 180 degree camera move around a person and then back. Moving the crane took forever so the whole shot was like over a minute long and I wanted it to be more like 20 seconds. Simply speeding it up looked crazy, the breathing and the movement of the actress was super fast. I suggested picking out key frames of her and morphing between them, kind of like how they did bullet time in The Matrix. It might not sound terribly hard but it took a lot of roto work to fix hair and a bunch of things.

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How much visual effects work did you actually do yourself for Annabelle: Creation, and how do you find the time for it while also being involved in the rest of post production?

I do more temp stuff than finished shots. On Lights Out I did about 15 of the final shots while on Annabelle: Creation I only did 4. I bring my laptop to the edit bay and while my editor is Michel working on scenes I’m doing VFX shots. I don’t want to sit in an office next door since I want Michel to be able to show me cut footage and then I’ll give her feedback.

I also noticed Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc worked on some of the practical effects. I used to work there years ago and remain friends with Tom, Alec, and many of the employees. Did you get to visit ADI during the production?

Yes! And it was awesome. I’ve been a fan of them since forever and I loved getting to see things from the Alien movies, Tremors, the stuff that was unfortunately cut from The Thing, etc. That’s one of the cool things getting to work in Hollywood, you get to work with people who have worked on some of your favorite films, sometimes going back to your childhood.

In all your behind-the-scenes clips on Youtube, something you’ve still not talked about very much is directing. What insights can you give us into your directing style?

I don’t really know what my style is. When it comes to directing actors I start with not giving them much direction performance-wise because I want to see where they take it. If it’s too far off what I had in mind then we talk about it and do it again. I learned quickly to not try to get actors delivering lines the way you hear them in your head because you’re never going to get that. It’s better working with what’s natural to them rather than trying to force them into a narrow box.
When it comes to other parts of directing like how things look and play out I’ll sometimes have to draw things, photoshop, animate, make sounds or whatever it takes to get the idea across when my words aren’t enough. It gets particularly embarrasing with music when I’ll have to sing or hum to explain what I want.

As someone who has experience in all the technical aspects of the filmmaking process, which part of the process do you miss doing yourself? Which part are you happy to not be doing anymore?

So far I’ve only directed other people’s scripts but I always figured I’d be a writer/director. I’ll want to write and direct something eventually. I’m not in a hurry about that though, there are a lot of great writers and scripts out there.
I’m very happy about not having to do rotoscoping.

A sequel to Lights Out is currently in development. How are you involved this time around?

As involved as with the first one. Working with Eric Heisserer right now to get the story right before he goes off to write the script.

Are you planning on directing that one?

I’d like to but nothing’s 100% set yet. There are some other projects on the horizon but it would feel really weird to have someone else direct a Lights Out movie.

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Are there plans to turn any of those other Youtube shorts into features?

Yes. I’m writing Pictured and Cam Closer together with Lotta Losten.

I’ve seen rumors online about what you may be doing next, and I’m also in this industry so I know you can’t discuss anything. So let’s end by asking what kinds of projects you’d like to make in the future. Are you interested in staying in the horror genre? If you branch out, what kind of projects excites you the most?

At the moment things have been going quite well so I’m in a “let’s see how far I can take this” mind set. I want to take on a blockbuster movie to see what that’s like. Maybe that will fail spectacularly and I’ll stick to low budget horror or maybe it’ll work out and I can alternate between horror and big films. Kind of like James Wan who did Conjuring 2 between Furious 7 and Aquaman. That would be awesome.
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Huge thanks to David for being my first interview victim! You should follow him on twitter by clicking hereAnd no, he doesn’t smash ponies. He also has his own website, check it out!

Check out the trailer for Annabelle: Creation!

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