By Mark London Williams
There’s second-unit directing and, of course, there’s the regular kind. But perhaps there’s something in between: “I’ve done first and a half!” says VFX supervisor-turned-director Mat Beck with a laugh as he talks about his recent turn at the helm of one this season’s concluding Smallville episodes.
As the founder and president of Santa Monica and Vancouver-based Entity FX, Beck has helped tripped the light — or at least the visual — fantastic in the chronicles of Clark Kent’s early days, when the founding of the Justice League was just a glint in his budding superhero eye.
Of course, that glint packs heat vision — provided by Entity’s digital acumen — so watch out.
And speaking of vision, when Beck says he “did express an interest” in directing a full episode, he already came in with a reputation as an FX guy who likes to get involved. He was already directing action sequences for Smallville, and had supervised FX for such series as Touchstone’s Night Stalker, WB’s Supernatural and the abandoned Aquaman pilot. While overseeing the effects for The X-Files in its Vancouver-based years, he also jumped in with a script, “Wetwired,” that plugged right in to that series’ mythos.
On Smallville, Beck wasn’t the writer, but he was still plugging into mythology: The episode he oversaw, “Prototype,” concerns Lex Luthor’s sprawling defense company developing cyborg assassins on the QT — or is it? — with winking cooperation from a senator-cum-weapons-industry bagman. The cyborg goes awry, of course, threatening those close to Clark and the young fellow from Krypton must spring into action.
That the episode is able to comment, however obliquely, on the symbiotic nature of politics and the weapons industry shows, as ever, the cigarette boat-like swiftness of pop culture as a medium for commenting on life in the moment.
And indeed, those slivers of time are what Beck says connects both overseeing FX in particular, and productions in general: “If you’re good at (VFX work), you’re thinking of ‘moments,’” sculpting them, bit by bit.
But as in film — and Beck has overseen several, including Galaxy Quest and Tuck Everlasting, and supervising Entity’s work in features like Spider-Man 2, The Aviator and others — those moments add up to a single whole. “When the thing gets to post, it can change radically — in television, it’s two different processes: First it gets made, then it gets remade,” Beck says.
In Entity’s case, the remaking of Smallville episodes requires on a toolbox of software packages that mostly relies on Maya and After Effects for all the super digits, as well as Flame, Inferno and others for compositing, and RenderMan.
But everything leading up to post — and post itself — happens more quickly than on a feature. “Time has control over you,” he says of the pressure of taking an episodic from script to broadcast. “The speed with which everything comes at you, all the decisions, you’d better be ready.”
Of course, that’s also true on the feature side. The director is the one who gives a yay or nay on everything. Almost. Of being in the director’s seat, Beck says, “There isn’t a waking second you shouldn’t be doing something to move this forward.”
But during those minutes, hours, and seconds, there was one shoe Beck was glad to see on another foot: “I turned to the VFX supervisor, who was not me, and said ‘figure this out.’”
Of course, Beck had lots of his own figuring to do. “Effects were used to augment scenes that were shot practically,” he says. But the choices weren’t to do something either all in post, or “set up to get it in front of the camera.” Rather, he says, “it’s not A or B, but A and B.”
“A,” in this case, also stood for actors. “They were great,” he says. “They were easy to work with — accepting. They had good ideas.” All of which had to be shared in a very short amount of time. Beck describes the production calendar as “nine official days of prep and ten days of shooting,” the last two of those being second-unit shots.
At the end of the process, he concludes there are “times when you’re better off not getting something on camera” because the “‘got that you got’ is not what you wanted” and is much harder to change in post.
So he left himself some room, getting from A or B to C. He recounts reworking the final sequences right up until the end, then contacting executive producer Ken Horton with his final breakthrough insights into how the end should be edited.
But by then it was too late, and he had to go with the “got that he got.” But it was a pretty good “got” after all — the episode moves at a lively clip, and while the script depends on one extra-large coincidence to provide back story, empathy and pathos, it’s a solid piece of pop storytelling with few wasted moments.
And if the pacing is steady, Beck already had a sense of letting energy move from one scene to the next as a director of many of the second-unit and action sequences for the series.
The trick throughout, he says, is “maintaining a consistency in the face of chaos,” while at the same time remaining open to serendipitous aspects of the process, like those good ideas from actors.
He also found that the conversations he needed to have with people like the scriptwriters, Horton, the production designers and costume people began around the same time he’d have those talks if he was just doing the FX.
But being in the director’s chair was no mere punching of the time clock. He cites Sydney Pollack’s work on Out of Africa as an example where form follows function and aesthetics. The story, he says, is about characters who aren’t content with merely “settling for anything.”
Watching the episodes, he became “aware of the technical superlatives” that went into the story. Thus, Pollack & Co. are “living [their ideals] while elucidating them.”
Would Beck want that larger canvas to elucidate some ideals of his own?
“A feature film is interesting,” he says. “With the right material, it’d be fun to step out a little more.”
Whether that would be stepping out faster than a speeding bullet, or leaping buildings in a single bound, he doesn’t say.
Written by Mark London Williams