Peter Hjorth is a long time collaborator of the most interesting Scandinavian directors and Lars von Trier in particular. Peter serves as 2nd unit director, visual effects supervisor and/or post production wizard on all kinds of special projects. Other collaborators include Thomas Vinterberg, Lone Scherfig, Hans Petter Moland and Academy Award winners Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen.
Peter was a featured guest on a webinar taking place May 22nd, 2014 where he took us through his journey working with von Trier on the controversial films Nymphomaniac: Vol I and Vol II, and Melancholia. Peter guided us through specific shots and scenes from both films and took live questions at the end of the session.
We talked to Peter about his career, what it’s like to work with Lars von Trier and what attendees of the webinar would be able to see and experience.
ProVideo Coalition: You've served as 2nd unit director, visual effects supervisor and post-production everything on all kinds of projects, but what aspect of filmmaking is most enjoyable to you?
Peter Hjorth: I really like working on different things. For me, it’s not about just working in post-production, or just working as the VFX supervisor. It’s a big privilege for me to do different things on a film and I’m lucky when I can work on a movie from the initial concept all the way to distribution. That kind of variety keeps me sharp, and it’s a thrill to see how these ideas grow and develop as the film progresses from one stage to another.
I probably have the most fun shooting the 2nd unit though. It gives you the ability to direct without the huge responsibility that comes when you’re directing the entire film. As the 2nd unit director you’re just there to get some shots done, and that can be really fun and rewarding.
The creative and collaborative process is what’s so special to me about this line of work though. I feel very lucky that I can work with people who are nice to be around and are also brilliant directors, cinematographers, production designers, editors and everything else. It’s so nice when you have a respectful collaboration with people that excel in their field.
There’s definitely an intense feeling around Lars. I think when I’m working with him and we’re really trying to get work done, we make an effort to keep things in a limited circle. When I’m working with him in post it's just Lars and myself in that room. Sometimes we’ll have the VFX producer in there as well, but that’s it. We don’t have assistants around and we don’t have production people around. We try to just be in a room and be by ourselves and not have too much buzz around us.
Of course when we’re filming it’s a lot different, and we have some big names on various projects which can make that buzz pretty intense. You can keep people off of the set but any kind of production is a pretty crazy environment, and that can add to the intensity that everyone feels. When I’m working I try to keep all that stuff to a minimum, and just focus on the task at hand.
Filming is always intense so we try to be well prepared. We spend a lot of time doing sketches and storyboarding and talking about the scenes we’re doing. That’s the key to being comfortable while we’re filming, because film stresses can come in easily. It's also essential to have some prep time with the director and the other key people.
Did the controversial nature of Nymphomaniac cause any major issues for you before, during or after production? Similarly, did the stress that is such a big part of Melancholia affect you in a tangible way?
To do a film with Lars is to go on a journey and to learn something new, and that was something I experienced first-hand. I got to hang out with some brilliant physicists and cosmologists for Melancholia. I got to spend some time with S&M specialists for Nymphomaniac. I got to work with some people who did a lot of interesting research for Antichrist. This intense research drives the story and the scenes. These are things I never would have been exposed to otherwise, but we always connect this sometimes far out subject matter to reality. The scariest stuff that goes into these films is almost always directly from real life.
The strange thing about Nymphomaniac was that it was actually easy to get into. Some might say that it’s scary how easily we can get into these subjects, but after awhile it’s just about what you need to do on that day. Some days that might mean someone is getting whipped. Other days it means they’re having sex. But it doesn’t take long before you’re not focused on those sorts of details and instead it’s just about getting into the scene. We never felt like we were crossing a barrier. We were well prepared and we worked with some really great and open-minded actors and body doubles, so those sorts of distractions weren’t a big part of the production. Most of the people involved just felt like they were adding new skillsets to their craft. Some people think that’s kind of scary, because it means we could be making a movie about almost anything and not have a big issue with things that might normally make us uncomfortable. I’m sure there’s a line we wouldn’t want to cross if we came to it, but I think the reason that we can work that way is because we are focused on the film as a whole.
I think the scariest stuff was for Antichrist, where we had a female circumcision. The research around that was tough. It’s incredibly unpleasant in every sense, but it’s also happening all over the world. For Nymphomaniac and Melancholia it was more about us going on a trip and exploring a new place, and we were there to support each other in this new place. I work with people I trust, and that’s essential when you’re dealing with these sorts of subjects. We’re all there to support the story and the scenes.
This is something that starts early on. Usually it starts with Lars having some discussions with the designers and the DP, and then they jump into some research. Lars is very clear about what he needs for different scenes and for a lot of scenes it’s actually worked out already. When the script is written he knows what style he wants so we can start doing tests early on.
For Nymphomaniac, things didn't exactly work that way because we had so many different looks. So what I did was I created a catalogue of sorts for him. I basically took some shots and threw all kinds of looks and plugins and whatever I had onto them for him to look over. Some of them were kind of a joke. I had this starfiller thing that I thought would get a good laugh, and then I did this sort of Chemroll reel that we could see in projection, and it turned out that this starfiller could give us this strange 70’s erotic look to some of the footage. We actually decided to use it for the whole ending of Vol I and I think it works really well. It’s not something I would do for any other movie or in any other circumstance, but it was fun for this one.
When you’ve done a couple projects with Lars you find out that when he says something it’s because he’s thought long and hard about it, so he really needs and means what he’s asking for. And he’s almost always right. If you don’t see it at the time, you notice it when you watch the final film because you'll see it working with an aspect that you didn’t think about, but he obviously did. I trust him completely because he does such brilliant stuff.
What sort of challenges did you come across as you used VFX to tell your stories?
I want to emphasize that when I work as VFX supervisor I very much work in scenes and sequences. I try to conceptualize like that. Then later on we work in shots. A lot of VFX people think in terms of shots, about the number of shots they’re dealing with, about what they need to do to those shots, etc. I try to take a step back from that and think more about the whole rather than the parts.
For some scenes I would say the VFX is like another character in the scene. It has to work with the main character, it has to work with the cinematography, with the design, with the sound, with the editing…with everything. So it can be like adding another character or element to a scene that’s already done. Then it has to be done in a way that we can actually accomplish within the budget. I work on art house films, so I don’t have a blockbuster budget. Our first consideration will always be whether or not we can afford to do what we have in mind for a scene.
We like to do several processes at once, so we usually have editing, VFX, final color grading, graphics work and more going on at the same time. And SCRATCH is great for that, because I can integrate with just about any other system since it’s totally open.
I work in an environment that’s an international co-production with producers from all over Europe, and SCRATCH is our connecting point for post-houses across the continent. They have direct FTP access into the machine that I’m running SCRATCH on at all times. We work with a brilliant VFX house in Paris and when they have shots ready for review they’ll upload them directly into my SCRATCH even though they’re in another city, and as soon as they’re uploaded I can play everything back instantly. I can pull directly from the server and we can review it right then. SCRATCH is effectively our media management tool in a lot of ways.
SCRATCH is also the place where Lars tries out different versions of things. We always have a temp grade going so we will see the shots cut into scenes and sequences with temp sound and grades. Even though the grade isn’t finished and the graphics are just there as a temp, what we see is full resolution picture and we see it as a scene or sequence. We’re not looping a shot over and over, which would give us tons of notes for stuff we don’t need.
Creatively, SCRATCH is used to integrate everything into a simulation of the final scene, and then we have all the tools to do enhancements of grades or do an animated mask or do whatever you want to do. It’s real time, and it’s fast. Lars likes that because doing something like node-based compositing while he’s around is not ideal, since he doesn’t see what he needs to quickly enough. Then we start going into details that don’t need to be dealt with. Working this way allows us to make adjustments on the fly, and I can take notes and send a frame grab back to the VFX folks. It’s a quick and visual way to communicate.
You've mentioned that the control you're able to have with SCRATCH is what really makes a difference for you. How does it affect your approach on a small and large scale?
Lars knows that when we’re working like this I can basically do anything that he asks, expect for maybe CGI. And sometimes it will be something simple like “blur that guy in the background” or “what happens if you stabilize things.” I can show him what he wants to see in full resolution very quickly.
We had SCRATCH for the first time on Antichrist, and that got us using it on Melancholia and Nymphomaniac. He knows what to expect, and he knows there won’t be any rendering time, which is amazing for him. If he asks for a new version it doesn’t mean he has to come back hours later. I can basically just rewind and play the revised scene for him. We have a great projector as well, so once we’ve seen it on the monitor we cut a reel together and we can see it on a big screen and see how everything is or isn’t working.
The bottom dollar is a big part of any project, so how is your workflow changed or affected when you're working on a smaller project as opposed to a larger one?
The tools are basically the same no matter the scale. SCRATCH was built to be the ultimate VFX review tool so this is stuff that's as equally well suited to a blockbuster as it is to an art house movie as it is to a really small passion project. In all of those cases, the tools are the same.
I sometimes work on a couple shots for a smaller films, and we can get the director in there and work the scene as a whole as opposed to working on just shots, and it’s become my way of interacting with directors when I’m doing VFX. It’s nice to have a machine that can do everything. For one film we talked about adding some mountains, and I just drew them up and added them to the scene. It was a five second thing, and we could see how it cut and how it was going to work on a big screen.
For a film with Lars, we have 3 or 4 post houses giving us shots back. We have maybe 200 shots, which is nothing like 1,200 shots for a VFX intense film. Still, the tools are the same for both, and the workflow can still be open. No matter how many shots we’re talking about, we can still work on scenes as opposed to working on shots if we’re using SCRATCH. You’re always watching a temp, but SCRATCH is optimal when you’re manipulating the dailies and you want to see them in a different sequence or need to see a different look quickly. I typically have different versions of shots and it allows me to switch between them very easily. I can also export them so I can easily send them to whoever needs to see it, regardless of the size of the production.
What are you looking to showcase to attendees of The Role of VFX and Color in Controversial Films webinar that’s happening on May 22nd, 2014?
I see so many people thinking in terms of shots rather than scenes, and that’s what I hope we can explore with some of the attendees. The importance of being able to work on something at play speeds in projection size with sound is also something people need to understand. When I’m working as a VFX supervisor, it’s important for me to always have a sense of how the flow is going. I need to have a sense of how it’s going to work so I can show it to the director and figure out what else we need to accomplish.
In a broader sense, I’m trying to educate the directors I work with, as I’m kind of a one-man-band with SCRATCH. It’s sort of a luxury that I bought SCRATCH for myself, but it’s allowed me to work on some amazing projects that would need an entire team otherwise. Doing nodes, new versions and swapping shots is really easy and nice, and now that I have the plug-ins I can try so many different things.
And even though I can’t discuss the details, I do want to let people know that the version of Nymphomaniac that is out now is the shortened version, and my best work in the film are on things no one has seen. So even though we can’t get specific, I’ll be able to talk about my strongest work in the film and how I was able to accomplish these things.