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Ask the Artist with David F. Sandberg, Feature Film Director
12 minute read
The Shazam 2 and Annabelle director chats about the importance of understanding VFX, why he turns to Mocha Pro, and how he got his start.
David F. Sandberg is a Swedish-born filmmaker whose obsession with movies started as a child. The feature film director, known for Lights Out, Annabelle Creation, and Shazam!, is currently prepping for Shazam! Fury of the Gods. We recently chatted with him about how he went from creating an award-winning short that went viral to directing Hollywood blockbusters.
Hi David, thanks so much for participating! The Boris FX team love your film work. We also appreciate all the videos and tips that you share on your YouTube channel.
Thank you. I just create the type of videos that I would want to see. You can find a lot of videos talking about camera specs but videos talking about directing for example are hard to find so I try to do my part.
What does your moniker Ponysmasher mean?
It doesn’t actually mean anything really. I signed up for YouTube when it was new and wasn’t sure what I signed up for. I didn’t want to use my real name so I just picked two random words. I eventually got some success with the channel and now I’m stuck being ponysmasher. It makes me laugh whenever news outlets tweet anything about me and it says @ponysmasher though.
Can you tell us where are you from and how you got started in the film industry? How did you make the jump from small-budget independent artist to feature film director?
I’m from Sweden and had pretty much every filmmaker’s dream happen to me. I was working as a freelancer doing little animations and documentary work. As with a lot of freelance work, sometimes I was doing alright, other times I couldn’t pay my bills and got horribly depressed. My wife Lotta Losten and I wanted to make horror shorts but couldn’t get funding for it so we figured screw it, we don’t need money. I have a camera and some gear and Lotta is an actress, we’ll just do it.
The second short we made together was Lights Out which went viral and all of a sudden a lot of people from Hollywood got in touch — agents, managers, producers, studios. It was about a year of conversations and dealmaking between the short going viral and the studio flying us out to LA to make the movie. We didn’t know if anything was going to come of this or if it was all just talk so during that year we kept making no-budget shorts.
We even started planning to make a feature, just the two of us. Luckily it wasn’t just talk. The whole journey was quite surreal. I had never been on a movie set before. The first time I stepped foot on a movie set was as the director. When I was interviewing people for jobs on the film, most of the interviews were me asking what their job was. “So what does a script supervisor actually do?” I think people in Hollywood thought I was more experienced than I was. They’d ask “Is there a cinematographer you usually work with?” “Do you have a storyboard artist?” My answer to all these things was “No, I’ve only done all these things myself.” It was an extremely stressful experience directing my first movie since I saw this as my one and only shot at Hollywood. Somehow it all worked out. I guess I knew how to tell stories. I was 34 when directing Lights Out and I’d been making shorts since I was 7 or something. I just didn’t know how film sets and Hollywood worked.
Some of your early work was animation based and you seem very interested in post-production and 3D. Did you always want to be a narrative film director?
Yes, that’s always been the goal. Everything around it has been in service of that. I started making animation because it was something I could do completely on my own so I didn’t have to rely on anyone else. I could just do it. Growing up, what making films meant to me was to actually make them, not just being a director telling others what to do. That’s not possible on a larger scale of course. You need to work with other people. You can create much greater things when you have a multitude of ideas and talents working together. But I’ve always been interested in every aspect of filmmaking. Even the things I’m not particularly good at like music. But making my own music meant not having to worry about copyright.
Who are some of your influences? Do you have favorite directors or specific films that inspire you?
Yeah a ton of them. I have a very broad taste and lots of influences. From audience-pleasing directors like Steven Spielberg and James Cameron to directors who are anything but like Lars von Trier and Gaspar Noe. Horror has always been one of my favorite genres and I love the work of John Carpenter and Sam Raimi.
From afar it seems that you have had an interesting journey and carved your own path. What was the learning curve like for you to work on larger budget studio projects like Shazam?
Directing Lights Out was a struggle since it was my first film and so much to learn. Annabelle Creation was the most pleasant experience so far. By then I knew how these types of films were made and I had more money and shooting days. Shazam then was like making my first movie again. Everything was at a much bigger scale and more advanced. Lots of visual effects and stunts. And a much longer shoot that somehow still didn’t feel like enough. I’m hoping that Shazam 2, which we’re shooting this year, will be more like Annabelle Creation. I’ll feel like I now have a handle on how things work and it can be a more relaxed experience. But we’ll see…
You appear to be quite proficient and fluent with 3D animation and visual effects software. How has this knowledge or experience affected your filmmaking career?
While you don’t necessarily need to know these things as a director it’s immensely beneficial. As a low-budget filmmaker, it means that you can do these things yourself for little to no money. As a director of a bigger movie, it means that communication becomes a lot easier. Not just that you can talk about technical details but that you can put together examples and visuals to get your ideas across better than words could.
When you plan out effects-heavy scenes, how much do you consider the tools, time, or budget it will take to realize a shot? How much do practical limitations affect your creativity or are there no limitations?
Tools, time, and budget are always on my mind. The most satisfying thing to me is when you can figure out a simple but effective solution. Like the whole Lights Out concept is based on just simply cutting between something being there and something not being there. Or when we needed three crocodile men for a quick gag in Shazam. It’s a reference to the old comics. I figured we’ll build one practical suit and then just swap the ties and shirts and split-screen together three performances. Cost-effective and worked great. And I played all three crocodile men so no need to pay actors either! I find that sometimes if you don’t consider limitations and just go big you can get in trouble down the line. I would always rather do something smaller really well than stretch yourself too thin trying to do too much.
We learned that you have personally used Mocha Pro to work on temp shots on various films. When did you first start using Mocha?
I had dabbled in it years ago but I first started using it a lot on my first feature Lights Out. Test screenings are always scary and you want to show as complete a version as you can. We had our first test screening really early, I think just 5 weeks after post started or something like that. So there was a lot to do in little time and I had to do the majority of temp vfx myself.
Can you discuss why or how you use Mocha in your process? Are there any specific scenes from your films where working on temp shots helped influence your creative process?
I use Mocha pretty much any time the camera isn’t locked off. Even when the moves are quite complicated you can get away with simple 2D tracks a lot of the time. I also do things like rotoscoping or stabilizing shots to then merge with other shots. There’s a scene in Annabelle Creation where the girls first arrive at the house. Janice is by a dark hallway upstairs and you see a hint of the dead girl Bee walk by down the hallway. That was something I came up with in post. I took a shot from later in the film where we see her walk away, stabilized it since the shot had a moving camera, and put her in the dark hallway.
Movies, at least mine, are pretty much made in post. Another example from Annabelle Creation is when they find Miranda Otto’s character nailed to a wall. I didn’t feel like it was impactful enough so I thought “what if it’s just half of her body?” I made a temp version and really liked how it turned out so when it came time to do additional photography I added a scene where that half body comes back to life. And there were a ton of temp shots in Shazam. I hate doing test screenings with bluescreen and wires and things like that which is pretty common. So a lot of the time when we’re at that early stage I do a lot myself. Things like Billy walking towards the camera and transforming into Shazam at the carnival. I used Mocha to track smoke elements and lightning into that.
The really fun part about temp work in particular is that it doesn’t have to hold up for more than one viewing. Test audiences won’t be able to rewind or see it again so you don’t have to spend time on all those little fixes and details that usually take up the most time.
Does software affect your VFX planning? How do you decide what shots might be completed practically vs 2D or CGI?
My policy on my first two movies was to only do shots that I knew how to do myself. I have videos on my YouTube channel going through some of the “homemade” shots in those movies. It felt good to really have a handle on exactly what the shots were and how to do them.
On Shazam, there were so many VFX shots and of such complexity that I had to admit that a lot of these things I wouldn’t know how to do or be able to do myself. I had to trust the VFX supervisor and ask what elements they needed me to shoot. But the best is definitely when I have a full handle on exactly how the shot is being made and with what software. That’s my goal. I like to try and keep things as practical as possible. I find that a combination of practical and CGI works best because then you at least have some real things in the shot that the CGI can be matched to. There are fully CGI shots in Shazam. One that I think holds up quite well for a CGI shot is Darla running up the ferris wheel. Except for the very start with the two people being picked up, there is nothing real in that shot. I’m sure people figure that the characters are fake but everything else is too.
How do you choose visual effects supervisors or which VFX vendors will work on your films?
For VFX supervisors it’s just about looking at the credits and if they seem like a good person. Then I put my trust in them when it comes to vendors. At this point, though I’ve worked with a few vendors and have some favorites I’d love to work more with.
You recently shared a video detailing your process for creating animatics with Blender. When working on larger projects, does the studio want to see pre-vis renders? Have you worked with any of the pre-vis companies in Hollywood?
Yeah, you have to do lots of pre-vis on a movie like Shazam. The way I’m working currently on Shazam 2 is I’ll do animatics in Blender for certain scenes but then a pre-vis company makes them better. My animatics are like the basic coverage. These are shots that I definitely want but then we’ll have to add more shots. My animatics are also quite simplified. Like I recently did this scene with some destruction in it and my version is really simple but it gives the basic idea and then the pre-vis team can make it proper. Currently, I’m working with Third Floor but the first Shazam was Proof.
Where do you turn for creative inspiration?
Movies are my big passion and what I find most inspiring. Comic books to some extent too. Don Rosa, writer and illustrator, of Scrooge McDuck and Donald Duck comics was a big influence growing up. I learned a lot about storytelling from his comics. Junji Ito, a Japanese horror manga creator, is another one.
What do you do when you start feeling creative burnout?
Well if it’s for personal projects I take a break and stay away for a while. That’s the great thing with the no-budget shorts that Lotta and I do together. We make them when we feel like, how we feel like. On bigger projects where I can’t step away, I get depressed instead. But I know it will pass eventually because it always does and you have no choice but to power on.
What career and/or life advice would you give your younger self?
Since I ended up where I wanted to be I wouldn’t dare to change anything in my past. I would just tell myself to keep doing what I was doing. The advice I tell others is to keep creating. Not only because you will learn and get better with everything you do but also because you never know what will resonate with others. The Lights Out short film was something Lotta and I made just for fun. We had no thoughts on developing it into a feature but that’s the one that people loved and what started this whole journey.
Do you have any experience or thoughts about Virtual Production techniques and the trend of game engines being adopted by the film community?
I haven’t had any experience yet but I find it very exciting. I hate green/bluescreen work both for how boring it is to shoot and how hard it is to make it look right. Hopefully, we’ll end up using it on Shazam 2. The stuff I’ve seen done with it like The Mandalorian looks amazing.