Set visit : This is This Is Not My Life II
The second instalment of our behind-the-scenes look at the making of ambitious television drama series This Is Not My Life. By Nick Grant.
By Nick Grant
For reasons presumably to do with the series’ mystery-shrouded plot, the production team had the task of creating a world that’s a slightly off facsimile of our own.
“From a visual perspective things are seemingly normal – but not quite,” says production and costume designer Tracey Collins. “The slight differences make it a little eerie. Everything is a little more pastel, a little lighter, a little brighter…”
“That’s another interesting thing about it – it’s a mystery thriller and some dark stuff happens but generally the lights are on,” says director Robert Sarkies. “You’re sort of playing in a world of opposites… It’s really interesting to stage thriller scenes in pastel sets – hope it works!”
They both laugh.
“Yeah, it’s like a slightly parallel universe,” Collins continues, warming to the subject, “so every single element has had to be questioned, every form, every shape, every texture. I think design has played a big part in the story, in terms of subtext.”
That sounds like it might be a real joy, as well as a huge challenge?
“Oh, it’s been full-on,” she enthuses. “We’ve had to rethink everything – light switches, power, computer technology, cars – right through to the colour palettes. Rob, [co-director] Peter [Salmon], [DOP] Andy [Commis] and I have been very careful with colour palettes, and what’s been exciting is we’ve invented a whole new visual language as a result. You know, pale green is the new cream, pale lavender is the new beige…”
Presumably black is still the new black though?
“We don’t have black!”
No black? Then we’re definitely not in NZ as we know it now, Dr Ropata – as an immigrant friend never tires of telling me, if black clothing were to be suddenly banned in this country, over half the population would find themselves without a stitch to wear.
“It’s never stated but it’s potentially futuristic,” Collins adds helpfully, “and there are little elements that will make the audience go, ‘Wow, what is that?’”
Some of these onscreen flourishes are supplied by Albedo VFX, who were brought in just a few weeks before the shoot began.
Like the others involved in the production, Peter McCully, the vfx company’s director, has clearly been chuffed by the creative opportunities the show’s presented.
“The style of this world was beautifully realised by Tracey,” he says, “so we had a very clear idea of what things should look like and how they worked.
“In spite of the fact we wouldn’t receive edited material to work on until after the first block was in the can, in the first few weeks we were plunged right into producing the material that would play on-screen on practical TV screens. We were also frantically designing interfaces for desktop computers, car dashboard instruments, medical apparatus, tracking devices, and futuristic mobile phones called ‘PeCs’.
“We aimed to make the interfaces we designed make sense to the actors as well as the audience. Some of the cast adopted the term ‘Perspex acting’,” McCully laughs, “because a lot of the time they were talking to blank pieces of acrylic that are later to become animated displays.”
Sarkies and Collins make a point of showing me the ‘user guides’ McCully created to help the cast operate the computers and PeCs with consistent hand movements and eye-lines the effects could be matched to later. They’re enviably clear and detailed, with a sly wit. Perhaps McCully can translate the utterly incomprehensible instruction manual I got with my new cell phone?
Another challenge for the Albedo team was designing four or five styles for the computer systems in the fictional town of Waimoana. “That was to identify the various sectors of the society being depicted, to help bring the complex, multi-layered story to life,” he says. “I tried to avoid the clichés of over-the-top movie computer graphics by keeping the designs practical, as if someone actually uses them every day.”
McCully reckons the “superb” working relationships they enjoyed on the production “will show on the screen”, while “from an effects point of view, working with RED files is the top shelf and the pipeline we have going with Images & Sound is the smoothest post-flow we have had”.
That, according to I&S’ Grant Baker, is because the post house “nailed the RED workflow very early on”, thanks to laying hands on the initial RED camera Rocket brought into the country.
“Since then we’ve refined our processes even further on numerous RED projects. Baselight colourist Paul Lear and Flame artist Brenton Cumberpatch have spearheaded the development of our RED workflow and, along with our IT expert Alan Kidd, introduced super-fast data pipelines to move the files through the building.”
Baker notes that working on an episodic series does present some challenges in terms of the overwhelming volume of data that mounts up over a long running shoot, so “having strict data wrangling procedures and data back-up is vital. That said, the fact the Baselight grading system allows us to work natively with raw RED files, coupled with our refined workflow, means the post-production process itself is relatively effortless, allowing us to concentrate on the creative look of the show.”
That’s has been aided by the choice of camera, Baker says, which has “given them a very stylised result”.
Equally important to the vision of creators Rachel Lang and Gavin Strawhan is the ways everything sounds – the overall effect will be sufficiently unique that after you’ve seen it once, you’ll only need to catch a few frames or a snatch of the soundtrack to know you’re watching This Is Not My Life.
“We have invested in some fairly major noise reduction technology to assist with many of the challenges the sound brief presented,” says Images & Sound’s Steve Finnigan.
“For example, there are no petrol engines in this world. From an interior and exterior perspective, the vehicles have an electric note to them, so we’ve had to find sounds we can manipulate to fit the motion of the vehicles without interfering with the musical score.
“This also requires more dialogue replacement than you’d normally expect for an NZ television drama since the advent of multi-track field recording,” he notes, “which as a general rule has lessened the amount of ADR required due to more microphone options. All dialogue in car driving scenes has to be replaced, as does the dialogue from any locations close to a motorway or busy road.
“The main thing we bear in mind with the sound design,” says Finnigan, “is the show’s world is highly manufactured and overtly friendly, so even the most ominous looking item will have a gentle sound associated with it…”
• But wait there’s more – lack of space means there’ll be one further instalment in our November issue, covering the high jinks that ensue when television budget meets cinematic ambitions, and the challenges and rewards of shooting on RED.
Er, we erred
In the first part of our coverage of This Is Not My Life, we mentioned Shane Carter is the composer on the series. Alas, we were wrong on two counts: (1) Although Carter was in talks to take on the role, it ultimately went to Don McGlashan; and (2), even more egregiously, we misspelt his first name – it should of course be Shayne Carter. Our apologies.
Also, while we wanted to be careful not to give away any of the series’ plot machinations we didn’t intend to be quite so mysterious. The following synopsis was meant to run at the top of the article but got left off when it was laid out: “Alec Ross wakes up in his beautiful house, to find his beautiful wife and lovely kids ... The only problem is, he’s pretty sure this isn’t his house, family, job or even his life. He is told he had an accident, he’s suffered a head injury; it will all be okay. But it’s not ...”
Finally, there was a cryptic reference to a David Byrne/Talking Heads song having some similarities with the series’ concept. This was a reference to “Once in a Lifetime”, the following extract from which was also meant to run at the start of the piece: “… And you may tell yourself/ This is not my beautiful house!/ And you may tell yourself/ This is not my beautiful wife!...”
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