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FIRST NAME BASIS - Marta Kauffman on "Grace and Frankie" and the Projects That Make Her Heart Pound

Posted By Zeke Nicholson, Tuesday, April 18, 2017

You can call it an open question as to whether NBC’s Friends is the greatest sitcom of all time. There’s no question that it’s one of the most beloved. Its series finale was watched by an astronomical 52.5 million people, reflecting the incredible cultural significance the show enjoyed for the decade that it was on television. The series’ co-creator, writer/producer and PGA member Marta Kauffman, has had an unenviable challenge in creating a worthy follow- up to the Central Perk gang. But as the co-creator of Netflix’s critically acclaimed series Grace and Frankie, Kauffman has pulled it off, transitioning from a show that provided the definitive picture of the ‘90s TV generation, to another series that’s generation-defining (or redefining) in an increasingly diverse television landscape.


Producer Marta Kauffman watches a scene unfold on the set
of Grace and Frankie. Photo by Melissa Mosley/Netflix.

Grace and Frankie stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as the titular characters, chronicling the story of two women in their 70s whose husbands (played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) announce in the pilot that they have fallen in love, ending both marriages. On paper, Friends and Grace and Frankie couldn’t appear more different; after all, the average age of the protagonists in the respective shows is roughly half a century apart. Nonetheless, the parallels in exploring the deep importance of friendship in the characters’ lives are apparent, a theme that Kauffman sees reflected in her own life, particularly as she ages. “As I get older,” she observes, “I find that the relationship between my women friends and me is far more important. It has gained such significance.” The dynamic between Fonda and Tomlin, a rapport deeply rooted in friendship both on and off screen, has proven to be the engine that drives Kauffman’s creation. Her affection and respect for the stars, both as people and as professionals, animates her answer to every question. “They are smart, they’re observant, they’re so good at what they do, and they love each other,” she declares. “I don’t feel that I’m part of a triumvirate … it is them. My job is to get them to tell really good stories.” The show premiered its third season on March 24, and with production for season four already underway, Kauffman clearly has given them more than a few good stories to carry.

Grace and Frankie has its sights on an interesting new space for its third season. The initial premise has morphed and grown. “We’re in a new phase [where] we’re no longer dealing with the effects of the husbands leaving them,” Kauffman explains. “Now we’re in the phase where they have to start facing their age.” At 60, Kauffman is roughly a decade and a half younger than the protagonists on her show, yet the realities and concerns of life beyond middle age still resonate deeply with her. “At 60, I’m finding myself making decisions in a different way,” she reflects. “For the first time in my life, if I don’t like a book, I stop. I only have so many books left in my life, and I’m gonna read the ones that I’m passionate about. On the other hand, joy—which you take for granted when you’re younger—joy is something that you want to surround yourself with.” That pursuit of joy, at least professionally speaking, is what led Kauffman to found her production company Okay Goodnight. The group is small, consisting of Kauffman, Robbie Tollin and Hannah KS, but they’re committed to a very particular directive. “We are three women,” she says proudly, “and one of the things we decided about our company is that we’re only going to do things that make our heart pound.” To that end, the company is working on three “dream projects” that include a documentary about Gloria Allred for Netflix, an HBO miniseries adaptation of Karen Joy Fowler’s novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves with Natalie Portman attached, and a series for Amazon currently entitled Emmis, with Etan Cohen (Tropic Thunder) set to write and direct the pilot. While Kauffman appears genuinely passionate about all three of these undertakings, Beside Ourselves seems to have particularly captured her attention. “This project is quirky and funny and deep and emotional and heartbreaking, and everything I wanted my career to be,” she shares. The miniseries will also serve as the first foray into hard drama for the writer/producer, an area where, despite her epochal success in comedy, she still feels she has some catching up to do. “I have to prove myself as a not-comedy writer,” she admits. “People don’t want to believe that [drama] is what I do.” But if the deft transition from the classic comedy of Friends to the more nuanced and introspective comic stories of Grace and Frankie is any indication, a further step into the dramatic depths with We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves looks like a challenge she’s ready for.

Despite Okay Goodnight’s full slate of projects, Kauffman remains actively involved in Grace and Frankie, both as a writer and producer. “I generally get [to set] every morning for the first rehearsal at 6:45 or 7. I come up [to my office] and I’ll watch a cut or two until we shoot. The writers room starts at 10. [Then] I get called on by set designers, costume designers, location scouts, [etc.] . There was a day last season where my workday touched every episode of the season.” It’s a daunting amount of work, but Kauffman, as one would expect, maintains a sense of humor throughout the whole process. (“I must go up and down my office stairs 15 times a day,” she cracks, “you’d think I’d be so thin!”) That comfort in her work is likely bolstered by the fact that creating her show for Netflix has provided Kauffman with an artistic freedom that she never had on Friends. The streaming platform, free from the constraints of act breaks and content beholden to advertising revenue, has afforded a creative flexibility that Kauffman calls liberating. That’s not to say, however, that finding a home on the platform hasn’t been without its challenges. “When you work with Netflix and you’re starting your first season, you don’t get to do a pilot. They don’t do pilots. You do chapter one. And you’re thinking about all 13 episodes. The downside is that you don’t get to make mistakes and then make changes for the second episode.” Nailing down the exact tone of the show, for example, is an issue that can be mitigated by having a pilot episode as a template, but a challenge that has to be dealt with on-the-fly when a show is committed to a 13-episode batch.

Aside from the storytelling obstacles generated through bypassing the pilot stage, the creative freedom on Netflix also comes with some particular production challenges. “It’s hard to get cast, because they don’t necessarily want to do an arc on this, when they could get a “real job” on something else,” Kauffman jokes. “And we are unfortunate to be working over pilot season [for season four of Grace and Frankie], so it is really difficult to get directors and cast. Netflix isn’t seasonal like other networks. You go when it’s time to go. You take this much hiatus and then you go again.” A secondary challenge, specific to Grace and Frankie is, again, an older core cast whose stamina plays a factor from a production standpoint. “We have a cast who isn’t young,” she observes, “and can only do so many hours. [Our cast and crew] work long hard days, but 10 hours is about our limit, when many shows have a 12-hour limit. So that puts some constraints on how many shots we can get.” But despite all that, Kauffman says she wouldn’t change it for the world, observing that, “We could never have done this show, the way we wanted to, on network television.”


Kauffman works with cast members Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin on the set of Grace and Frankie.
-photo by Melissa Mosley/Netflix

With Friends behind her, a number of exciting projects ahead, and Grace and Frankie currently occupying the majority of her attention, Kauffman seems to have reached a place of genuine professional fulfillment. And while her skills as a writer may have given her career its start, it is her efforts as a producer that she says maintain a special place in her work life. “My favorite part of my job is producing,” she smiles. “It is an extraordinary collaborative process. I get the opportunity to be creative in areas that aren’t as much my day-to-day. I’m not a costume designer, but boy is it fun for me to say, ‘The character in this moment, this is what she’s feeling—does this jacket feel too bright for that?’”

It may be that affinity for collaboration that has driven the success of Kauffman’s television projects. But at the end of the day, she feels the success of her shows will be best measured by the warmth that people feel for them. How much affection do audiences maintain for her characters? Consider that most of us are on a first-name basis with Grace and Frankie, Ross and Rachel, Monica and Chandler and the rest of Kauffman’s extended gang. Her characters are more than just Friends—they’re friends. And beyond the laughs that they’ve provided over the years, the bigger and better payoff remains the anticipation of who Kauffman will introduce us to next. 


- Feature photography by Kremer Johnson Photography

- This article originally appeared in the April/May issue of Produced By magazine

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"Producers Mashup" Networking Event To Debut at PBLA

Posted By Administration, Thursday, April 13, 2017

Today the Producers Guild announced that for our 9th annual Produced By Conference we will be introducing a new networking event called the "Producers Mashup".  For this exciting event we will be "seating a small group of participants at a table with a mentoring producer or executive, during which time the group will have 15 minutes to ask questions. When time is up, mentors rotate to another table and each group of participants receives guidance from a new mentor.  Each table will have the opportunity to meet with three mentors over the course of the event, including at least one producer and one development exec."

So far, confirmed producers and executives for the function include: Karen Bailey, Ian Bryce, John Canning, Stacey Carr, Dustin Davis, Justin Falvey, Lucy Fisher, David Friendly, Mackenzie Gabriel-Vaught, Tim Gibbons, Richard Gladstein, Jeff Grosvenor, John Hadity, Mark Johnson, Barry Josephson, Courtney A. Kemp, Chris Moore, Jonathan Murray, Nadine Rajabi, Michael Seitzman and Chris Thomes.

Learn more by going to ProducedByConference.com or read the full press release HERE.

 

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ACES MATTER - The Academy's Color Management Standard Belongs on Producers' Radar

Posted By Michael Goldman, Monday, March 20, 2017

 From Glenn Gainor’s point of view, the Academy Color Encoding System (ACES) is a topic producers of all categories need to include in their dossier of technical subjects worth understanding for the simple reason that what used to be called “filmmaking’ is now a multi-format, multi-platform art form. Therefore, he suggests, those responsible for assembling the people and resources necessary for generating quality content for delivery on this new industry landscape—producers—need every advantage they can get in terms of literally getting everyone on the same page.

“We’re not just making a movie for the big screen, but for streaming and hard-disc formats and even for high dynamic range [displays],” explains Gainor, a longtime PGA member and head of physical production at Screen Gems. “ACES allows for consistency across many deliverables known today and new ones to come. As more people shoot in a manner that allows greater manipulation in the post-production process, it’s more important to understand the intended look, and that’s what [ACES helps achieve]. It’s like shooting what we used to call a ‘fat negative.’ You want as much information available for the post-production process so the movie can live in all formats.”

So what exactly is ACES and how does it help filmmakers achieve this goal? ACES is the free and open source color and digital file management system that began life as a project of the Academy’s Science and Technology Council about 10 years ago. Over the last two years, ACES 1.0 has officially rolled out as a device-independent workflow management standard meant to be incorporated into pipelines so as to permit color, file, and metadata consistency and control throughout entire productions, from the start of principal photography through final mastering and everything in between.

Andy Maltz, Managing Director of the Academy’s Science and Technology Council and project director for the ACES initiative, says the notion essentially was to come up with what he calls “a replacement” for the long, stable workflow infrastructure that existed across the industry during the film era when film lab methods were typically similar everywhere, ensuring consistency in processing and image quality. During the rise of the digital era, no comparable industry standard workflow rose up to take over. Instead a wide range of proprietary and constantly shifting methodologies became the norm.

ACES, he explains, was designed to put an end to the Wild West nature of digital production workflows caused by the advent of a seemingly endless number of different camera formats by simplifying the management of those different formats through the use of a common color space format to work in. The goal was to enable consistent color management through an entire production so that all principals could be confident they were viewing identical imagery, while future- proofing productions by ensuring masters of such high quality that their properties would be suitable for display technologies of the future—a particularly important topic these days with the emergence of higher dynamic range (HDR) display technology that is likely to only improve in coming years.  

On the technical side, there is a lot more to the various components of ACES, which combined make up what is called the ACES Viewing Transform—the way that ACES files can be viewed on calibrated monitors. The various Viewing Transform components essentially deal with how to convert data to ACES color space, how to apply ACES data to shots, how to render or convert that data and then more or less how to spit it out in the correct viewing format for different kinds of monitors in different kinds of color space formats. 

But the ultimate point for a producer or manager to understand is that ACES is intended to be the digital equivalent of “an original film negative to return to and scan at a higher resolution,” in the words of Lori McCreary, CEO of Revelations Entertainment and currently serving as one of the PGA’s Presidents. Thus ACES content is intended to be suitable for long-term archiving—content mastered and stored as uncompressed files at the highest dynamic range and color gamut possible, encoded to be unpacked and displayed on any foreseeable display technology. That’s a crucial point in the producing world, McCreary suggests.

“Today we typically capture at higher resolutions than we can finish on due to storage and cost restrictions,” she says. “So we finish and archive films in HD, or sometimes 4K, which looks great on current devices. But in five to 10 years, HD could look as bad to us as VHS does on high-resolution devices now. But if the industry adopts ACES and captures in the highest resolution available and archives in this resolution-independent way, this is our best solution to ensure that our content is future-proof, that it will look as good in the future as it does today.”

As noted, the technical nuances surrounding ACES—what it is (basically a suite of image-encoding specifications or “bits” of the picture; the various transform definitions and guidelines, what most people more commonly think of as look-up tables or LUTs; and various other tools) and what it is not (a software application or required or forced “look” to be applied to content, taking creative control away from filmmakers) can be confusing to those outside of the technical disciplines. And while some producers, like Gainor, supervise post-production and are keenly aware of these kinds of technical issues, many other producers, of course, train their focus in other areas and do not have, or for that matter, need or wish to have that level of technical expertise. This begs the question, “What is the proper way for the producing community to wrap its arms around the ACES initiative and figure out its proper role in their daily work?”

“Does every producer need an intimate working knowledge of ACES? No more than they typically needed to know how to thread a film camera back in the film days or know how to operate a color correction system,” says Maltz. “But they do need sufficient knowledge to be able to hire the right people. So they need the same level of understanding they need to hire cinematographers and colorists and everyone else. They need to know how to ask the right questions when a workflow is presented to them. As with anything else related to a producer’s work, it can be boiled down to knowing things that impact time, money and the quality of the product. ACES can touch on things related to all those areas in a positive way.”

Topics like future-proofing, standards, and file management were not major issues for producers in the film era, Maltz adds, because the film-based workflow was steady and standard for the better part of a century, and everybody worked, more or less, the same way. Today however, that has changed, and so producers tend to be more knowledgeable about such topics. In that sense, experienced producers suggest that maintaining knowledge of how ACES can impact productions, as well as of the costs, benefits and consequences of transitioning to an ACES-compliant workflow, pipeline, vendor or facility, is very much in keeping with traditional producer responsibilities.

 “[As a producer], I’m charged with figuring out how to tell a story using cameras and lights and sets and finding the best crew and locations and looks, so that when my studio president greenlights a project, it is in the best form possible,” Gainor says. “[At Screen Gems] we’ve integrated ACES in 10 films now and continue to improve our ACES workflow. We’ve been employing the ACES workflow in every feature we directly produce since we shot No Good Deed [2014] on the [Sony CineAlta] F65 camera. That was our first 16-bit, 8K RAW capture. It was important to start down the path of ACES with that movie, because the new cameras have so much latitude and give filmmakers so many options that we wanted to make sure that decisions made on set by the director and cinematographer were translated with their intentions in mind all the way through the post-production process. ACES allows us to lay down looks in a non-destructive manner—in other words, not baked in, so that all technicians who come across the material, from visual effects craftspeople to color-timers, will understand [the filmmakers’] intentions.”

And that is a key point, because one common concern in the creative community is that ACES somehow “locks in” looks or by implementing it, forces producers to tell creatives how to make their movie. Gainor, McCreary and other producers who have used ACES say that is not the case, and indeed, it was not designed for that purpose. Rather, Maltz describes ACES as being “about the plumbing,” meaning “you can run anything through the pipes that you want—in terms of creative looks, there are no practical restrictions and ACES protects content in a non-proprietary way for the widest variety of display options.”

In other words ACES describes, essentially, how image data from different camera sources can move to a common color space for the purpose of doing color correction, but not for purposes of how you creatively apply that color. The intent is to ensure whatever creative approach is taken, it will look its very best on the highest-end monitors available today and tomorrow. Gainor suggests that in modern workflows, the ACES approach can help prevent productions from being “boxed in,” in fact.

“Actually, there is tremendous latitude the filmmakers can apply later,” Gainor says. “What I love about ACES is that filmmakers have the ability to dial in specifically to what they intend the final product to be but without baking in colors that may not work once the film is fully edited, since you never know if a critical transitional scene needs to be perfected one way or the other.”

As part of its ongoing initiative to roll out ACES, the Academy is offering various resources and events to educate and promote the system’s capabilities to the creative side of the industry. Among other things, they are suggesting that producers follow a series of best practices on ACES-compliant productions. Those best practices include meeting early in a production’s life cycle with all key stakeholders to get everyone on the same page regarding which technologies are going to be utilized and how the workflow will be designed, what the deliverables will be, and discuss and plan solutions for any tools or facilities within the workflow that may not yet be fully ACES-compliant. Dozens of major hardware and software companies and major vendors around the world in all categories are already part of the initiative, and hundreds of feature-film and television productions have already been made using ACES-based workflows. But whenever there are reasons for the inclusion of non-ACES elements in the workflows, most experienced vendors and experts will be well acquainted with various work-arounds. Also recommended is a process of taking time to educate any participants in the process who are new to ACES, building time to test the workflow and pipeline into your schedule, and insisting that all monitors and displays being used by principals to view critical imagery be properly calibrated.

Meanwhile the Academy runs an evolving portal for ACES information at www.ACEScentralcom, where you will find a community forum to post or answer ACES questions, a link to an ACES YouTube channel for demos and information, an ACES event calendar and an ACES product planner list. 

- This article originally appeared in the February/March issue of Produced By magazine

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TAKING FLIGHT - Acclaimed Documentary "The Eagle Huntress" Challenged Societal Convention, The Elements And A Brutally Tight Budget

Posted By Chris Pfaff, Tuesday, March 14, 2017

It was a single image, but its purity and iconic background led to a quest that would have made Marco Polo blush. Most documentary producers start a project with a single story thread that embodies a larger narrative. In the case of PGA member Otto Bell, it was a single photo on Facebook that led to him boarding a plane to Outer Mongolia to chase the subject of his first documentary feature, The Eagle Huntress, which was recently nominated for a Producers Guild Award. The story, which tracks a 13-year-old girl’s gender-busting performance as a record-breaking eagle huntress, the first woman in her tribe’s centuries of training massive eagles to hunt foxes for their valuable pelts, has captured the spirits of audiences worldwide and is a tale of documentarian passion as well.

“I saw a Facebook post that led me to a photo essay on the BBC’s website. That was Asher Svidensky’s incredible photos of Aisholpan, the girl who would become the center of my life for more than a year,” says Bell, who was working at the agency Ogilvy’s branded entertainment unit when he first alighted on the idea of making a film about Aisholpan. “I was so taken with the story of Aisholpan and the photos. I immediately looked up Asher on Facebook to talk to him about making a film.” Turns out his instincts were correct: The journalist who wrote up the piece, William Kremer, later attended a screening at the London Film Festival with his mother. “He told me that photo essay was the most-trafficked page, outside of breaking news, on the entire BBC site for all of 2014,” Bell reports.


“I had been making documentary-style shorts for seven to eight years,” he continues, “and I was finally ready for a project without client interference or ‘brand objectives.’ At that time, I had gotten into the habit of looking at everything I read, or saw, through the lens of a film, even while walking down the street.

“I was profoundly moved by the images that Asher took. They were beautiful—like paintings. There was a more objective part of me that felt they had the ingredients for a good film. Photos break apart for me. I was looking at the background and I saw these incredible stories within the images. Outer Mongolia is the most remote part of the least-populated country in the world, so the logistics of even contemplating a film production were incredible.”

After contacting Svidensky, Bell had a Skype session with him and shortly thereafter boarded a plane to Mongolia. He was filming at the time in Egypt with a cameraman, Chris Raymond, and brought him along with Svidensky in tow.

Bell, who produced the filming portion of the film himself and acted as director, soon found himself in the Altai Mountains in the northwest part of Mongolia.

Producer and director Otto Bell (center) with Aisholpan (L of center) and siblings, as well as cameraman Christopher Raymond (back)


“I said to Chris Raymond, ‘I cannot pay you.’” Bell recounts. “We had been filming a commercial in Cairo, and Chris, me, and Asher went for the first trip. From a production point of view, it’s an unforgiving location. Tough place to logistically set up a shoot. You fly into Ulan Battar, the capital city, from Beijing or Moscow. You land there and you have to wait a few days. Aisholpan’s region is Ulgii—and Ulgii is the provincial capital. Only two flights a week go to this little town, via a twin-prop plane.”  On one occasion, Bell had to leave 200 kilos of the gear in a locked room at the Ulan Battar airport, as the twin-prop plane could not take off with passengers and the gear.

 “The first location was so spectacular—with purples and reds in the sky at sunset and Aisholpan training with her father’s eagle. The eagle is part of the largest species of golden eagle in the world. They have 7 to 8-foot wingspans; they are massive and prehistoric in scale. I thought that this was an exotic setting overall. And of course, Aisholpan has this beautiful presence, with an angelic face and a strong profile.”

Finding the family required driving around the steppe where the nomadic hunters set up their ger, or yurt. The hospitable tribespeople, who are quite used to welcoming rugged individualist tourists and amateur photographers, welcomed Bell with some hard cheese and tea and told him where to find Aisholpan and her family.

“I was hoping that the family would be alright with me filming. I should not have worried, as they are used to having a few intrepid tourists making their way to their door. Nurgaiv, the Dad, was really cool with the whole idea, and he then said to me, ‘Well, we will steal an eagle for Aisholpan this afternoon.’”

Bell had only a narrow window in which to capture the pivotal scene where Aisholpan secures her eagle, as the birds only have a few days after being born before they start to leave the nest.


“I had thought that I would capture this moment, which became the centerpiece of the first act,” Bell recalls, “and I thought I would get a sizzle reel to show to financiers. And then this moment with the baby eagle happened. We had to jump on it. So I went into planning the production and mapping out how we were going to shoot it. It was happening that afternoon. This is where I am happy being a producer and director. It works seamlessly together.”

Things got interesting when Bell and cameraman Raymond, who is afraid of heights, approached the cliff face where they had to capture the eagle-snatching scene.

“Chris wouldn’t climb up the cliff. He had a C-300 camera at the time. I drew out the scene on a notepad. I put Chris at the bottom of the cliff to get my wide shot– my safety–of the whole experience. And the nest itself was shot by Asher with me doing sound over his shoulder with a Xoom recorder. Trouble was, Asher had never shot video before—only stills. I said to him, ‘Just turn your Canon 1-D to video and keep focus and keep it sharp.’ He and I went up the hill with the family and there was this outcrop of rocks and this ledge, and we nearly killed ourselves getting onto the ledge. I found this GoPro camera at the bottom of my rucksack and I put it underneath Aisholpan’s cardigan sweater to get those POV shots where you feel like you’re inside the nest. So in total we shot the scene from three angles. The whole thing was one take —12 minutes. I had the mother eagle circling overhead, and mind you this is our first afternoon filming so we didn’t have our rhythm down yet, we hadn’t worked out the translation flow so we were just purely observing this amazing feat.”

Ben Crossley and Otto Bell prep their drone for takeoff.

After the first visit, Bell realized that he had to capture the landscape of this remote part of Mongolia more thoroughly and called his longtime collaborator, Simon Nibblet, the primary DP on the film.

“I knew I needed a birdseye view and needed to get airborne to show the landscape from above. I had produced and directed films with Simon for about eight years. We have done 10 to 12 productions together shooting in a wide range of locations, from Uganda to Vietnam to Hokkaido, Japan. Simon is a real inventor and a pioneer of drone photography. Years ago he used model helicopter parts to build one of the first drones capable of carrying a RED camera. He made me a 9-meter crane that is based on a ship mast, which folds away into a snowboard bag. That is how we got those swooping aerial shots we got.” 

 Nibblet also helped create a tracking rig out of the aging van the crew used to get around—literally roping open the side door to get an unobstructed view for their Ronin Steadicam rig. In the 300 hours of footage shot, Bell and his team used a hodgepodge of cameras, which ran from Sony A7s to the Pocket Blackmagic to the principal camera, the RED Epic. The team also used a C-300, Canon 1D and GoPro. Principal photography wrapped in February, 2015.

Aisholpan’s victory at the annual eagle hunting festival, where she beat 70 men and set a record in one of the categories, was shot over two days and became a turning point in the narrative of the film, stunning the male hunter elders of the village and the crew alike.

“I had shot two rounds of interviews with these elders, on two different visits,” Bell continues. “Even though there had been a handful of eagle huntresses over the centuries, Aisholpan was unique in her region and her tribe and had outshone everyone else. These elders put on their ceremonial furs and sat down with me, and they would tell me about traditional women’s duties and how no woman should ever be an eagle huntress. I noticed them all saying ‘Jokk,’ which means ‘no’ in Kazakh and built a montage in my mind that ended up in the final film. When she won the tournament, they all came up with excuses for her performance, like ‘Oh, her Dad’s a great coach; her bird is exceptional,’ but they refused to believe she could be a real hunter without having hunted during winter. That was what I needed to capture.”

The crew prepares to grab a tracking shot.

In a traditional sports-related documentary, the film might have ended with a natural moment of victory, in which the athlete holds up the trophy, and the picture fades to black. Bell wanted to ensure that the real victory in his film would be Aisholpan successfully hunting in the bone-chilling Mongolian winter. And as fate would have it, his funds were running out.

“Aisholpan’s major milestones in her chronology dictated my production schedule. I had no choice but to use my own life savings ($80,000) to fund the shoots. I needed to capture the winter scenes, and in addition to knowing how brutal the weather would be, I was suddenly faced with the reality that I had no funds whatsoever to return to do this shooting.”

Bell turned to colleague Doug Scott, who referred him to Morgan Spurlock, who stepped up when the project was most in need.

“I was literally out of money. I had never been in money troubles ever, and I was depressed. I had been carrying this film every day. I was staring at the ceiling, and really worried about finishing it. It was a dark time. I cut together the first 10 minutes of the film and sent a link to Morgan in an email, and he got back to me the same day.”

Spurlock not only brought Bell into his company, Warrior Poets, to cut the film, but also introduced him to financiers and to producer Stacey Reiss as well as Spurlock’s sales agent at CAA to help shop the film. Bell also discovered Martina Radwan, a documentarian who had adopted children in Mongolia and was shooting there, to get scenes of Aisholpan with her school chums and provide some verité footage that captured the quotidian aspects of life in the most remote part of the world.

Says Bell, “Warrior Poets did incredible work on smoothing out footage and doing synched sound. Everything was translated. The nat sound—it took months for us to do. We had a team of people, led by Stacey in Kazakhstan—ten translators whom we fed constant information. Morgan put together a great team, and it was great to have women on what is clearly a women’s film. Sharon Chang and Stacey were fantastic.” 

Spurlock also helped pull off a coup, when Daisy Ridley, already one of the most visible actors on the planet thanks to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, saw a cut of the film before its Sundance premiere and signed on to do the narration. “Daisy Ridley made the film easier for the younger audiences to track along,” says Bell. “She is far more than a name on the poster for us.”

DP Simon Niblett, camera assistant Ben Crossley and producer/director Otto Bell with their 9m, 25kg crane.


With the financing secured, Bell could return to Mongolia to film the final hunt scenes. Shooting was almost impossible during the day where it warm up to minus 25 Fahrenheit, while at night it would go down to minus 40-50 degrees. He had scheduled five days for the shoot; it would end up taking 22. The cold created interminable response times. “You had to wait for warmth so you could get four to five minutes out of a battery or ensure that your hand would stop sticking to the tripod. We would strike every day, from this little village on the Chinese border and go 10-15 kilometers in every direction looking for these blooming foxes, and then when the sun went down, we would race back to the village. We’d sing songs around the fire at night to stay warm.”

Continues Bell, “We could go days without seeing a fox, and we would watch Aisholpan and her father sink into the snow and cross frozen lakes. We would have to run ahead of them in order to capture real moments, and they were amazing to work with, due to their incredible determination.”

The film’s transformation from ethnographic passion project to global empowerment favorite was clear in audience responses, starting with Sundance 2016.

Sony Pictures Classics, which bought the film, has seen results from strong word of mouth. They were not alone in their interest; Fox bought the rights to remake The Eagle Huntress as an animated film.

“Chris Wedge, head of Blue Sky Studios, saw the same photo I did on the BBC site and he started developing an animated version. He heard about our film at Sundance and saw me and said ‘Let’s talk.’ So I am helping provide background for his film. It’s in safe hands to keep Aisholpan’s message of female empowerment in there. I don’t mind whether people see the doc and or the animated version. Whatever guise it comes in, I just care that young girls and boys hear Aisholpan’s message. I don’t care about the carrier.” 

- This article originally appeared in the February/March issue of Produced By magazine

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THE FINAL STAGE - The Dean of Sitcom Line Producers, Vic Kaplan, Reflects On 40 Years On Set

Posted By Chris Milliken, Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Over the decades, producer and PGA member Vic Kaplan has been on hand for some legendary moments in television. From his early days bringing copy to Peter Jennings’ news desk to producing stand-up specials with Robin Williams and sitcoms with Garry Shandling, Ellen DeGeneres and Louis CK, Kaplan has enjoyed a storied career as a producer, filled with iconic and groundbreaking television and lots and lots of funny shows. From his office at his latest show on the lot at Hollywood Center Studios, he shared some reflections on an expansive career in TV production.

Currently producing Disney’s KC Undercover, Kaplan says he has finally arrived at his last show. Ironically, given the breadth of his career, Undercover is only his second children’s show--in the years leading up to it, he produced just about every other flavor of television.

Kaplan began his career in New York, where after graduating from New York University with a degree in TV production (where his path sometimes crossed with fellow students Martin Scorsese and Michael Wadleigh), he began working at ABC News as a desk assistant to Peter Jennings. He recalls sometimes crawling on the newsroom floor during live broadcasts to bring the anchor his copy. Subsequently, he moved on to various live TV productions in New York—concerts, news, soap operas and sports broadcasts.

He admits that at times he wasn’t sure of his trajectory in the early days, remarking that he “took lots of jobs, lots of opportunities, didn’t know what I was getting myself into ... I just wanted to see what it [was] like.” He jokes that in terms of selecting projects, he caught the instant gratification bug long before it became part of popular culture. He’d jump to new projects from week to week and “didn’t have time to reflect” on a direction. Although his early interest was in sports, opportunities pulled him in other directions, “like a great wave.” Fortunately, he found his work in live events to be a useful calling card; so much material at the time was shot and broadcast live or with minimal editing.

Kaplan fondly recalls the work culture of the era. Working in production “was about the community and being able to mesh with others.” Producers we were consistently helping each other in the 1970s— Kaplan often enjoyed the security of having his next job lined up before his current gig ended. He laughs, “I didn’t think there was going to be unemployment!”

His experience in live TV led to producing comedy, which turned out to be a prelude to a career in the genre. He produced the live sketch show Friday’s, the early competitor to Saturday Night Live, which featured Larry David and Michael Richards as well as great music from the era. The show was a perfect fit thanks to Kaplan’s experience producing live TV. But he admits that a live sketch show came with its fair share of challenges, as the volume of material to learn in a week made for some tense days on set. But as he says, “That’s what live TV is about.”


Eventually he made his way to the West Coast after a visit to Hollywood, where he recalls his jaw dropping at the number of shows in production. After speaking with ABC, he worked out a move to Los Angeles after almost going into live sports broadcasting in New York. But LA’s own abundance of live programming provided a good feeling that he could sustain his career.

Indeed his “major calling card” of live television experience opened doors to producing a range of music, sketch shows, late night TV, and stand-up specials in the 1980s. He produced music specials for HBO with bands like Fleetwood Mac and stand up specials with Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Lewis and Dennis Miller. Producing those events, he learned the essential importance of making sure the venue was familiar, comfortable and a place where “you know you’re supported.”

A slew of sitcom pilots also came his way in the 1980s and from those, “the first show to really blossom” was the innovative, genre-busting It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. Kaplan calls it one of the most enjoyable series to work on, recalling that “Garry made me laugh every day.” He also praises the unique nature of the show and Shandling’s artistic vision which he says “was remarkable.” His collaboration with Shandling wasn’t limited to the sitcom; Kaplan returned to produce The Garry Shandling Show: 25th Anniversary Special, a program modeled after The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson specials. On that show, the character Larry Sanders was born.

More TV comedies followed, with sitcoms in the 1990s like ROC, Get Smart and Ellen. Brought on to the second season of Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom as an executive producer, Kaplan recalls it as a show which had “great expectations.” In the third season, those expectations were fulfilled when he produced the show’s historic coming-out episode, “The Puppy Episode.” “There was a lot of trepidation around what [the episode] was going to be,” both at the network and throughout the industry, and  of course, “there was a lot of emotion” on and around the set. But he remains proud of his role in holding the show together during the experience and of the Peabody Award honoring the episode. The producer keeps a framed picture of Ellen and the show’s writers in his office, with the text of the episode’s script on the frame. In an office that’s sparsely decorated, it stands out.

After Ellen, Kaplan continued shooting pilots and sitcoms until landing at Louis CK’s HBO’s multi-camera venture, Lucky Louie in 2006. Kaplan admits he expected to retire after what he anticipated would be something as unique and funny as that series, which he calls “one of the funniest shows ever done.” It looked to be a fitting end to his skills and experience after decades of comedy and live TV. Lucky Louie was, he says, “hardcore multi-camera” filmed in front of a live audience, “with sets that were raw like The Honeymooners.” Unfortunately, Louis CK was a few years away from making his stripped-down conception of the sitcom stick, and Lucky Louie didn’t make it to a second season.

Kaplan admits to coming out of semi-retirement to work on his previous show and KC Undercover. Today he’s producing the final season of the latter series, having a good time working with a collection of writers he’s known since the ‘90s.

Vic Kaplan (center) meets with members of his day-one team,
painter Rick Webb and medic Andrew Spackman, at Hollywood
Center Studios.

Reflecting on his work, Kaplan readily offers some insights into what’s made him effective at the job. He calls it a matter of gathering the right personnel, which in turn provides a good deal trust. “The team that you bring in as a producer,” he says, “the entire crew, people who are fabulous at what they do … [they] help bring your confidence.” A great crew “brings the best to the table and they’re there to collaborate.”

Kaplan is frank but optimistic—a frequent combination among producers—about the challenges that come with producing any project. “Looking back, you go through periods of time where you don’t think you’re going to make it. You think that a project is not working out, and all of a sudden there are these positive forces that all come together and make a success out of an experience that you didn’t think was going to work out.”

Kaplan has seen a multitude of changes in television over so many years. What has changed the most? Beyond the obvious evolution of technology and style, he recalls the benefits that come with a smaller, more intimate producing community, with its culture of forwarding jobs to colleagues when they needed the work. But there are changes that Kaplan readily welcomes, like the fact that a whole TV series can be available at one time; he loves binge watching. Similarly, he is excited about the incredible variety of contemporary content produced over so many platforms and agrees to the notion that we are in a golden age of TV.

Across the ever-changing aspects of production, technology and style, Kaplan views a few things as constant features of successful producing. From multi-camera sitcoms to live specials to projects for the internet, Kaplan calls “enthusiasm and hope” the essential ingredients in producing nearly anything. And of course, another constant is passion for a project—the fact that “You love doing it,” he summarizes and “You hope that it’ll be the next big thing.” As a producer, working with a writer who has created something unique and special, it’s “doubly exciting” when the show does become a hit.

For those navigating their early steps in Hollywood, Kaplan offers a seasoned perspective. “It’s hard to be judgmental when starting out,” he observes. “Opportunities will present themselves in different ways.” As much as anything, he suggests, a career is about being open to fate. “In the end, it’s impossible to know where you’ll end up. It’s about meshing with the universe and seeing how your personality meshes with others,” as well as understanding how you affect your collaborators. And of course, practical knowledge is essential. Arm yourself with a grasp of the basics of producing different types of shows—for instance, what they typically require as far as locations, hours, and personnel.

But there’s no mistaking the centrality that people—the relationships and trust—hold in Kaplan’s account of his own career. “The people that I met carried me through it.” Recounting his trajectory, even Kaplan seems surprised at the volume of unexpected memories of projects and people that continued to pour out--specials, writers, colleagues, moments with colleagues. “There’s a great connective tissue that’s there,” he smiles, “You can’t see it. But it’s there. It’s a pot of stuff that ended up a career.”

This final stage of his career has also brought other unexpected gifts that come with decades of working in the industry. He loves seeing familiar names on credits, like production assistants he hired on Ellen now producing shows themselves, calling it “one of the finest moments, feelings that I have…It pays the job back.”


- This article originally appeared in the February/March issue of Produced By magazine

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