How do two guys who spent their careers in animation, comics and videogames approach making the live-action thriller They’re Watching? The only way we know how: planning, planning, planning.

We started in animation—a painstaking, time-consuming, expensive craft. In live action, many of the jobs are performed live on set, and a reasonable approximation of the work can be seen seconds after it’s captured by the camera. But nothing in animation can be accomplished live. The finished product trickles in across the span of months or years. Outlines are written, storyboards drawn then redrawn, then pitched live to the entire crew, and if it’s not working, they get redrawn and beaten into submission (the boards, not the storyboard artists). Then paper scripts are generated. The actors are recorded separately from one another, for audio clarity and to make later editing easier if dialogue needs to be cut for time.

Then the design begins: Props and vehicles are dreamed up, backgrounds drawn and painted, colors chosen for everything, characters designed and turnarounds generated for each of them. We figure out how they walk, talk, move, blink—everything. All of that work is put together into a rough animatic for the entire movie, with temp sound effects and music. And then everyone watches it. And we decide: Is this good? Because if it’s not, it’s back to the drawing board for more storyboarding and rewriting and rerecording, until it is good

And each of these stages requires multiple layers of approvals by a dozen parties, any one of whom can demand dramatic changes.

 Mia Faith as Sarah Ellroy in "They're Watching. Courtesy of Best Served Cold Productions

Mia Faith in They’re Watching. Courtesy of Best Served Cold Productions

What We Learned from Animation

Compare and contrast this process to shooting in a real-world location. Don’t like the color of the trees? Too bad, maybe we can fix it in color timing. Too many buildings and electrical wires in the background? Either learn to live with it or spend thousands of dollars removing them digitally during post-production. The actors rehearse and practice and bounce ideas off one another, not needing the director to sit opposite them and try to remember how the other actors read their lines three days earlier. The costumes? Well, unless it’s Game of Thrones or a similarly high-budgeted project, those are generally bought at a store and altered to fit the actor. Animators have to design them from scratch and create them anew for every frame of the film. We know what you’re thinking: “Yeah, but what about the cinematography and the lighting?” We did that, too… three months ago with storyboards and scene layouts.

And why? Why do we plan everything down to the last detail like psychotic obsessive-compulsives? Because there’s one thing available to live-action directors which isn’t available to animation directors: retakes. In live action, you can experiment so freely and quickly that Will Ferrell was able to release two different versions of Anchorman 2 with completely different dialogue. In animation it could take weeks or months to come up with that second version of even a single scene. (Try selling that to a studio bigwig!) In animation we can edit the entire movie before we shoot a single frame. And because we can, we must. Anything else would be a waste. There’s no “let’s get that from another angle” in animation. There’s no coverage in animation. There are no take twos.

This puts animation people like us in a great position to enter the independent film world, because we’re trained to know what we want before we get started, which leads to a lot less figuring things out on set. So we plan everything. And by doing that, we can keep costs low.

After working in animation, live action is easy for us. We softly murmur “action” and 100 people make the magic happen in real time. A scene that would take seven months to plan and animate is realized in 10 minutes. It’s like having a genie, but in the sure hands of guys who are used to getting only one wish. We’re expert wishers.

Frankly, we’re amazed every studio in Hollywood doesn’t recruit exclusively from the ranks of animation directors. Deadpool was directed by Tim Miller, a fellow animation director, and it cost $58 million. Compare and contrast that with the reputed $410 million budget of the upcoming Superman vs. Batman movie. If we had to guess how Miller accomplished that impossible mission? Planning and obsessive-compulsive attention to detail, the two most lethal weapons of every animation director.

Ryan Reynolds and Tim Miller on the set of Deadpool. Marvel & Subs. TM and © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Ryan Reynolds and Tim Miller on the set of Deadpool. Courtesy of Marvel & Subs and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

What We Learned from Videogames

When we left animation and moved into videogames, we found that many of the same skills which had served us well would apply there as well. But we had to learn some new lessons, too.

Videogames, like animation, are also a medium for planning. The gameplaying experience may involve winging it, but the creation process cannot. Everything has to be computer-perfect or your end product won’t just be boring, it will flat-out not work. In that medium, gameplay testing sessions dictate everything, story is often an afterthought, and you learn to bend with the wind or be shattered. Levels are cut, new ones are created. Story is eliminated, moved around, all to serve the needs of the players. It’s not uncommon to write dozens of drafts of a videogame screenplay. Try asking Alex Garland for draft 37 of Ex Machina… you’d be hearing from the Writers Guild in a hurry.

Videogames are all about iteration and flexibility. How does that come in handy in live-action filmmaking? Hey, remember the big bear attack scene we scheduled for tomorrow?” Yes. “Well, the bear’s got rabies, but we can get you a chicken. You need to plan and block a chicken attack scene before call tomorrow morning.”

Planning. Flexibility. Iteration.

What We Learned from Comics

And then there’s our comics experience. When we write and art-direct comics, like Duster and Get Lucky, we work with our artists to realize page layouts which are all about camera placement and character blocking to achieve the clearest storytelling. Panels are scenes. Everything must be composed. We do blocking… for word balloons. Think it all out in advance, and your comics will work. Leave it until later, and you wind up redrawing everything. Comics are storyboards which can never move, so they have to be crystal clear.

How This Applied to Live Action

All this experience was necessary to prepare for the last 13 minutes of They’re Watching, which is essentially one continuous camera shot. We used many of the same basic techniques as Birdman, only our sequence has the added complication of being full of people on fire and exploding.

When our crew read the script for this sequence, our 1st assistant director was very concerned: Guys… this is going to take lots of time to set up, arrange, block, light, direct, all of it. Somewhere around three weeks to film this one sequence. The planning alone will take two weeks!”

That’s when Jay reached into his bag and pulled out a 517-panel storyboard for this sequence, showing every shot, detailing every camera move, roughing in all the actor blocking, explaining how each shot would hook up to the following shot and what effect would need to be used to disguise the cut. Everything. Most films are lucky to have 200 storyboard panels for a 100-minute film. We had almost three times that for 13 minutes.

The crew thought we were insane, that this level of detail was overkill, an unnecessary waste of time, etc. But on the set, we noticed that they had distributed plenty of copies of the storyboards, and almost no one ever had to ask us where they should be standing, how they would be moving through the scenes, or where the lighting should be hidden. That obsessive level of planning saved us two weeks of pre-production and two weeks on set, and when you’re spending $100,000 per week on a low-budget feature, saving a couple of weeks is a vital necessity. We shot 13 solid minutes of effects-heavy footage in five days.


Actors Brigid Brannagh, Kris Lemche and David Alpay in They’re Watching. Courtesy of Best Served Cold Productions

Storyboarding also came into play in an unexpected way. Our film has two sex scenes in it. Both actresses were worried about how they would be filmed, what parts of their bodies would be visible to camera, what they would be expected to do—all very delicate conversations to have, conversations easily misinterpreted, potentially causing hurt feelings or worse.

So we storyboarded both sex scenes, detailing exactly what staging, camera angles and actions the actors would engage in, and we kept the drawings cartoony to take the sexualized sting off all of it. The second our actresses saw their scenes, they relaxed. Days of anxiety and worry dissipated. (Keeping things on an even emotional keel is also a little-understood way of saving time and money.)

Planning. Planning. Planning. Being open to revision and iteration, and being prepared for it. If an actor had a different concept for a scene, we made it clear that we were open for discussion. If someone had a funny joke, we eagerly grabbed it and worked it in. Good ideas on projects come from everywhere, and we learned early on in our careers that accepting a good idea makes the person who suggested it feel truly invested in a project and work that much harder to achieve success. If the actors wanted to try different versions of the dialogue, well, why not? We aren’t animating it, after all. We were able to use the freedom of the set to experiment—around an idea that we already knew would work,

We learned a lot from our first three careers as animation, videogame and comic book writer/directors… and now as live-action feature writer/directors, we’ve learned even more. Next stop: virtual reality! MM

They’re Watching opens in theaters and on demand March 25, 2016, courtesy of Amplify.