Gareth Edwards is no stranger to Fantastic Fest. His 2010 film Monsters was accepted into the festival so it is a full circle moment for his latest film, The Creator to be showing to this fantastic audience. While Edwards couldn’t be in attendance, cinematographer Oren Soffer was the film’s representative. It’s pretty fitting that Soffer was able to introduce the film because it hits hard in the cinematography department. While the film explores an A.I. vs. humans world the approach is very much grounded in a naturalistic look that is stunningly beautiful and seamless with its VFX work.
Soffer’s work spans across film, music videos and commercial work. While studying at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Soffer was nominated for the ASC Gordon Willis Student Heritage award and was a finalist for the Arri Volker Bahnemann Award for Cinematography. His short films, Opera of Cruelty won a Student Academy Award and See You Soon won the audience award at the Palm Springs International Shortsfest. The last two feature films he worked on, Fixation premiered at TIFF and Allswell premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, respectively.
I was able to sit down with Soffer at The Highball located next to the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar where we were holed up in one of the many karaoke rooms, hence our first exchange you’ll read below. It was fun getting to chat with Soffer not only about The Creator’s process with Edwards and Co-DP Greig Fraser, but the films that inspired him when he was younger that led him to get into filmmaking. He was born in 1988, the same year I was, so a lot of the reference films he mentioned struck a chord including both being inspired by the Lord of the Rings appendices DVDs!
Oren Soffer: It’s nice here. What’s your go-to karaoke song? What should we queue up?
Catherine Gonzales: Africa. (By Toto)
OS: Yes, we can harmonize. Cool. Thanks for taking time.
CG: I want to talk a little bit about your beginnings. What were some of your gateway films into this film world?
OS: I mean, it all starts with Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future and Jurassic Park. A healthy diet of Spielberg and Lucas and those kinds of movies.
CG: And then what was the film where you were like I want to do this.
OS: I remember seeing Jurassic Park in theaters when I was five-years-old. So, that was very seminal for me and Star Wars I saw and I was even younger. I just remember the image of Yoda crawling around. Those were very formative early movies. I became obsessed, then. In terms of the leap into filmmaking. It wasn’t until a little bit later with Lord of the Rings.
CG: Oh, me too!
OS: Yeah, yeah! And specifically the special editions on the DVD box, the appendices.
CG: The behind-the-scenes interviews!
OS: Exactly. I mean, I just inhaled those when I was in middle school and at the beginning of high school, Return of the King came out. And that was really what sealed the deal, like, “Oh I don’t just love movies. I want to make movies. I want to be a part of this process.” There was nothing cooler to me and I couldn’t imagine any other future for myself from that moment.
CG: Yeah, a lot of us were inspired by those extra DVD features.
OS: It’s like you can’t dismiss how much those were really formative for me. It’s too bad that we don’t spend as much on robust DVD extras. But we’ll do our best with this one as much as possible to inspire.
CG: Yeah, I guess the younger generation has YouTube interviews now but it’s not the same.
OS: It’s not the same. The advantage now is there’s way more information out there. You just have to go looking for it a little bit more. It used to just be on that one disc.
CG: So, bringing it to The Creator how did this project come to you? I know Greig Fraser was the first involved and then he had to go do some little movie nobody’s heard of. [Dune, Part 2]
OS: Uh, exactly.
CG: So, what was that process between Greig, Gareth and yourself?
OS: I’m very fortunate to be able to call Greig a mentor and he’s been very helpful and a guiding force for me and supportive of my career for a number of years ever since I met him a few years ago. I’ve done a few other little odd jobs with him over the years and then he called me for this. It was sort of just the latest in a series of calls from Greig and you always know you’re in for something exciting whenever he calls. And this was the biggest one yet in offering to bring me on as a Co-DP for this project because he was going to be unable to be on set because of the overlap with our shoot dates and the prep for Dune: Part 2. So, that collaboration really started in prep. Our prep was four months and all three of us would talk pretty much on zoom everyday.
I got on a plane to Thailand and started location scouting with Gareth, spending a lot of time with him and getting to know him and his interests and taste. And then yeah, just talking all three of us on zoom looking at reference images and discussing films. We were discussing test footage that we were shooting and, and also other stuff and sort of organically, discovering the look and the technical approach to the film. By the time we started shooting I think we had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to do and how we wanted to make the film. And well, Greig and Gareth really had worked out a lot of the big picture approach on how to make the film and the sort of combination of gorilla indie filmmaking style with a bigger budget canvas. So a lot of that was already in place by the time I came on board but it was really exciting and cool to step into that and learn about their thought process and get on board with it.
During the shoot Greig remained a very supportive presence and would watch all of our dailies and look at stills. And we would talk pretty much every day about what we had shot, what we had coming up and sort of reacting to what we were doing and planning ahead. So, it was a really fruitful collaboration. And of course Gareth was operating the camera on set as well. It was a very unique setup in every way but really fun to be a part of.
CG: The film feels very big but then there’s these really beautiful close up intimate moments.
OS: Yeah. Exactly. And that’s very intentional.
CG: And it was really nice to see it especially in this A.I. world. I was wondering if this would be very techy in the look of it but I love the color palette with the blues and oranges and the naturalistic look. Can you talk a little bit about the process behind those choices?
OS: Our stated goal when we started to talk about what the look and feel of the movie was, was first and foremost for the movie to feel grounded, naturalistic and authentic. And in order to do that, there were a number of technical decisions that we made to create a support system with equipment to make sure that we were getting that or imbuing the filmmaking style with that look. It also meant very much embracing a naturalistic lighting approach and leaning into available light, natural light shooting, almost entirely on location and embracing what those locations were giving us. Then most of our job was about curating the lighting and making sure that it always felt believable and real. The goal that we had always talked about was we wanted it to be able to tell somebody that the film was entirely naturally lit.
And we were just the luckiest filmmakers in the world and just stumbled upon the most beautiful locations with the perfect lighting but of course a lot more work went into it. I think maybe it takes extra effort to make something feel effortless. That was really the goal. We worked a lot on finding that balance between something being too lit and, and then potentially feeling too artificial and false, which would take you out of the film vs not doing enough to enhance the lighting in the location and then having it feel not cinematic enough for how we wanted it to look. It was just the constant balance of finding that middle ground and making sure that when we were artificially lighting a space like the locations that we had to build on stage it was always maintaining that ethos of it needs to look and feel naturalistic and embracing the imperfection of that a little bit.
CG: I wrote down in my notes that it felt like some scenes looked like paintings and the visual effects look seamless. I couldn’t distinguish between what was shot and what was VFX even though I know these worlds and tech don’t exist.
OS: A big part of that is also the innovative visual effects approach. It was just interesting on set because we didn’t really talk about it much. We knew what the plan was but a big component of that plan was that a lot of the visual effects were going to be designed in post-production, and they were going to be designed after the film was edited on a shot by shot basis with the footage that we shot on set.
The goal was really to just focus on capturing beautiful and authentic feeling footage and sort of embracing that spontaneity, and freedom of that sort of somewhat documentary filmmaking style. Then applying the visual effects on top of that to create a world that feels believable and seamless like the visual effects are almost a throw away, like they’re just stuff that was there that we happen to catch a glimpse of on the edge of frame or something like that.
A big reference that we looked at was the beautiful documentary film, Baraka from the early 90s that’s shot entirely naturalistically with available light but in this very kind of elevated cinematic way that enhances these locations. That was a big influence for us as well as Terrence Malick movies. The goal was to combine that aesthetic with a Blade Runner, Alien sci-fi world.
CG: Yeah, there’s a little bit of that, but it doesn’t overtake and is its own thing.
CG: It’s so nice to hear that the visual effects weren’t the guiding force in designing this world. It should be like that.
OS: For whatever reason big budget movies just don’t tend to work that way. I say for whatever reason but there is a specific reason which is that when you’re spending that much money you want to have an idea of what the film is going to look like. It’s a guarantee. It’s like setting yourself up so that when you start making the film, you know what your end goal is and you have guideposts along the way that keep you on track. And that’s why films of this scale, typically do most of their design work in pre-production and then shoot to those designs. This movie intentionally adopted the opposite approach and part of it was for cost saving purposes and it was Gareth’s thesis of how he could make a film of that scale but on a fraction of a budget by spending more deliberately. Instead of spending all this time and money on designing the whole world and then shooting for that it was spending more discriminately on a shot by shot basis and only creating the visual effects that we needed, and they were designed to the shots.
It creates more immersive and believable visual effects. And the flip side of it is it is, it’s risky. I mean, it was a risk. There was always a chance that this approach wasn’t going to work exactly the way that we planned. A big part of the film was taking that leap and we were all taking it together and trusting in Gareth’s experience and taste and knowledge.
And Greig, of course, also backed us up from his experience. So it was a trust fall that was very easy to commit to because I think, deep down we kind of knew it would work and we did a lot of testing as well as the methodology and the visual effects on a smaller scale, to make sure that we were setting ourselves up for success.
CG: Well it works.
OS: Thank you. Good. I’m glad.
CG: Not that you need my validation, but it was beautiful because it’s always so off putting especially as someone who loves the big blockbusters. All the films you mentioned earlier are so practical and it feels like those sometimes look better than the ones that are coming out today. In this film, I couldn’t pinpoint where the visual effects start and end because it feels like this is a world that you can actually go visit with the visuals.
OS: That was exactly the goal and really tapping into that sort of gritty, tactile nature that those films from the 70s and 80s we mentioned while embracing modern techniques and technology in order to do so.
CG: I’m assuming you didn’t say “it’ll get fixed in post” in this one.
OS: It’s saying it’s going to be designed in post. It’s all intentional. We’re also going to be open to spontaneity and happy accidents and those moments of authenticity that you get from shooting this sort of loose documentary style. We’re constantly fishing and looking for those moments. Not just visually, but also with performance. I think that was a big component, giving Gareth the space with the actors to explore the scenes and explore the dialogue and find those moments of authenticity.
It all ends up showing up on screen with the visuals, the world building, the designs, the visual effects, it’s all there to support the core emotional story of the characters. If that’s not working and that’s not believable, it doesn’t matter.
CG: Especially Madeleine Yuna Voyles performance as Alfie.
OS: She’s a revelation. That was one of the things that we knew was working day one on set. Actually we knew during prep because we’d shot some test shoots with her and John David and you could already see, even though they had only just met, they were already starting to develop that chemistry and it was palpable and you could see it on camera. We knew that she was going to be the breakout of the film while we were shooting because every time she flips that switch and just turns on this insanely soulful emotional performance. I do not know how she did that to this day. We asked her mom. Nobody could really tell us and she couldn’t quite articulate how she does it, but it doesn’t matter because the alchemy happens and you just know you were getting those moments when you watch them. I’m so happy for her. I’m so proud. I think John David is great in the movie, too.
CG: How did you feel watching it with a Fantastic Fest audience?
OS: I mean it’s a great audience. We kind of knew going in that this would be sort of the perfect audience for this kind of movie. This film is hopefully for everybody but I think especially it has special accessibility and significance for people who love movies and who will get all the references and understand what worlds were pulling from, what we’re influenced by and inspired by, because this is one of those movies that wears its influences on its sleeve and I think that’s a great thing.
A big part of filmmaking and film history is different directors and film movements building upon what previous directors and film movements were creating. This is very much in that vein. We were expecting a film savvy audience and got a great response. I obviously was not involved with Gareth’s first movie Monsters. I just started film school when that movie came out. Which was very inspiring at the time, but obviously, Gareth has a history with the festival, having brought that film here.I think it’s a nice full circle moment to have his latest movie which in many ways is the closest to channeling what he started with Monsters. The Creator is maybe a combination of Monsters and something like Rogue One.
We also had A.I. robots during the screening on Standby, so to speak to add a little atmosphere to the proceedings. We all had a lot of fun with that.
CG: Thanks so much.
OS: Yeah, thank you. Great questions are very appreciated. So great to chat with you.
This interview is from 2023 Fantastic Fest. 20th Century Studios will release The Creator only in theaters on September 29.
Photo: Heather Kennedy