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Episode #131: Rupert Sanders - Director
This week on the show we sit down with director Rupert Sanders to discuss his experience shifting from high end commercials to the world of big budget movie making.
Rupert has an interesting story about his roots in commercials and his shift to long form and he shares the ups and downs of the feature world throughout this episode of the podcast.
If you have ever had an interest in moving into long form projects than this is the episode for you.
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Featured Guest: Director Rupert Sanders
Website: Rupert Sanders
Show Transcript: Rupert Sanders
00:00:00 And just like that, we are back. Episode 131 of the podcast today. We're talking low-ish budget film making with director Rupert Sanders. Let's do it.
00:00:09 Welcome to the Wandering DP podcast, where we focus on Leica photography, cinematography, and life off set. And now, your host, Patrick O'Sullivan.
00:00:23 And just like that, we are back at it. And I sort of jokingly said in the intro that we're going to be talking about low budget-ish filmmaking. That's quite the opposite, really. Rupert Sanders has directed a number of projects. You'll probably be most familiar with Snow White and the Huntsman, which is, I think, about $170 million, and Ghost in the Shell, which is his most recent one, which is another $110 million, so not chump change.
But we've got some interesting topics that we touch upon in this very first of our LA experience episodes, and it really is for the people that are looking to transition from commercial work to feature film work, which is sort of the standard story now. We've talked to so many people on the podcast, and really, that is the ultimate goal for a lot of people to get into film making, is making it into that feature world, and Rupert's got a very interesting take on it, coming from high end commercials, and really, the top of the game to switching over and pivoting over to feature films, and starting with $170 million for his very first one. That's no small feat.
And it's interesting to hear the back story, and how he got there, and the different ways and the different means, and how things have changed along the way, and what sort of commitment it is outside of the storytelling world. So, you've got family commitments, you've got, is it all it's cracked up to be, basically, because, as I say, that's the end goal for most people.
But as you get older, and as your career progresses and you start thinking about this long term, it's you are, a lot of the times, especially for directors, cinematographers as well, but for directors even more so, you're committing a giant chunk of your life to this story, so you've got to be pretty secure in the idea that you want to spend time working on those projects. So, it's interesting to hear Rupert's take, and it's also something, going forward on the podcast, that we've brought up a few different times, which is, which path do you go along, and where do the benefits fall for feature work versus commercial work, and are you able to maintain? Is there such thing as a 50-year-old commercial cinematographer that only does that, rather than feature work? Do you have to dabble in both, and what are the consequences for that if you've got a family, if you're not interested in committing that chunk of time to a project? What are the balances?
So, that's coming up on the podcast, but on this episode with Rupert, very interesting transition story. If you've ever thought about making feature films, this is probably a reality check for you, in terms of what it takes. Because we talk about the on-set workflow, how is that different than commercials? Do you have less people to answer to with a budget of this size? Do you have more people to answer to? What's your creative freedom? And then, what's the workflow like on set? All those things we talk about in this episode, and I'm looking forward to it.
And this really is the start of the LA adventure, for all the Patreon support that we've gotten when we made the move over to Los Angeles, and took over the Air B'n'B and turned it into a little studio. This is the very first one of those episodes, so I'm excited to get this one out.
Now, that being said, we did all in-person interviews in LA except for two, and this was one of them. I understand. Rupert lives in LA, I think. Hopefully, I'm not giving that away. And we were in LA, but I get it. You don't want to come into the room with a stranger. No, it wasn't for that purpose, just schedules worked out so that it just worked better to do it over FaceTime, so that's what we did. But this is the very start of that, so many thanks to the Patreon supporters that are out there.
Speaking of which, we are back at the livestreams this week, and we were looking at BenjaminX's work, who is a Patreon member who sent in this spec work that he had done, and I'm not sure if he had gotten it from the show, listening to the show, I didn't actually ask. But it was sort of the blueprint for how to do a spec ad for not a whole lot of money, but get just what you need out of it, and it be decisive.
So, we went over that in the livestream. We broke down a few different episodes, or, I mean, a few different stills from that project, and we looked at the whole thing. It was a lot of fun, and I was happy to get back in there and chitchat with everybody, and look at some listener projects, to see where you guys are at. That really is the benefit of those things.
So, super excited to get back into it this week with another livestream. If you are a Patreon member, or if you want to join and take part in these livestreams, it's a great opportunity to showcase your work, and to get some feedback, and everyone from the group can come at things with a different eye. So, it's just nice in that regard. And you can do that over on the Patreon site, Patreon.com/WanderingDP.
Also, this is the second episode. Even though we're at 131 for the big podcast, this is the second one on YouTube, and actually, this blew my mind. About two percent of you made the effort this week to go over to YouTube and check out the video portion. And I understand, it's weird. It's weird seeing my face, number one, but it's also weird for a podcast, just to have a video portion. I guess it makes sense for some of the breakdown episodes, so that you can easily follow along, but I appreciated it.
So, the people that did go over to YouTube and check it out, thank you very much. We're going to keep it going for the foreseeable future. It makes sense for the show to do that, because people are watching there, but for these interview episodes, I don't know how official this is going to be, but this is the place that we are at now. So, thank you to the two percent that made the effort.
And we talked about Patreon livestream. We're back at it this week. Make sure to get your projects in if you are a Patreon supporter, and the livestream is going to be, I think, the day that we're going to decide on now, essentially, it's been the last few times we've livestreams is Thursday, at 7 PM Pacific standard time. So, that is the show to tune into now.
Last week on the podcast, you will recall that I put forth the idea of a hotline, and on last week's show notes page, you could check the show notes, and you could see that there was a little audio button. You just click on that for the hotline, and you could record a message, you could send in a comment or a question, or a topic of discussion for the show, and it worked. People sent it in.
Now, the way that I record these shows meant that we didn't have a whole lot of time to field questions, but thank you if you put questions forward onto the hotline. I appreciate it. Hopefully we're going to get through more and more, and it's just an opportunity for people. Like I said, it's almost the same as the Patreon group, in that if you have a project that you have shot or you want to promote, hit the hotline with that information. Tell us where you are, who you are, where you're from, and we'll try and get that information on the show. And it just makes it feel a little bit more real, when people know who's listening. We get an idea of the type of people that are listening to the show and commenting, and hopefully we can get you a little bit of promotion for it, for people to check out the work. So, that's the idea behind the hotline.
And without further ado, shall we get into one? Let's get into the first ever hotline call. Here we go.
00:06:51 Hey, this is Cru Jones, from a wave pool in Arizona.
00:06:54 Whoa! First off, I guess this is the very first thing, is on the hotline, you don't actually have to yell. You can just talk normally. I can play with the audio levels on my side. But just speak like you're speaking into your phone. But I appreciate that. I didn't quite catch that. Want to try again?
00:07:07 Hey, this is Cru Jones, from a wave pool in Arizona.
00:07:11 Oh, right. Cru Jones. Interesting that that is your name, because it is the alias of myself, my preference, and maybe one of my top three cinematic characters in the history of cinema, really. Cru Jones, from the movie Rad. If you didn't grow up in the '80s, I suggest, if you're interested in a masterclass of storytelling, you check out Rad. And then you also mention that you're from a wave pool in Arizona, which is funny, because that's also where Rick Kane is from, who is the star of North Shore, another '80s classic, as well. Probably my favorite movie of all time. So, hello, Cru.
00:07:48 Long time listener, first time caller.
00:07:51 Yeah, I would imagine this is the first time, probably because this is the first time we've ever had these calls accessible. So, you are not only a first-time caller, you are the very first ever caller on the hotline.
00:08:01 Appreciate the opportunity to send in a question like this. Just want to let you know, could you pick a worse hat to wear?
00:08:08 Okay. For the people that are just listening to the podcast portion, I'm wearing a Los Angeles Dodgers hat. I have no affiliation with the Dodgers, but I did get a few comments and people sending in asking about the hat, and so I don't know. I probably could pick a worse hat. If I had a hat with a dick on it, that would probably be worse, or something offensive. This is simply a hat of a sports team.
00:08:31 Are you even a Dodger fan?
00:08:33 No, I'm not, actually. And if people actually care for the hat, I was at Cine Gear. On the plane flight over, I lost my normal hat, and it's sunny in LA. I was in a jetlagged stupor. I come out of the plane, I need a hat, I buy one. And so is the story of the hat.
00:08:48 Come on, man. You can do better.
00:08:49 I probably could, but thank you for the call. And that is probably not the most ideal introduction to the hotline capabilities. Hopefully in the future, we can keep those more centered in cinematography. If you've got, I don't know, questions about techniques, or like I said, you've got projects you want to promote, or you want to hear something about ... If you want to feature a guest, or if you want to talk about somebody. Maybe that's a better usage. Okay, let's go to the next call. This is the last one for the day.
00:09:18 Hey, Wandering DP. My name is Sarah, and I'm calling from Melbourne.
00:09:21 All right, we've got a fellow Australian, right? The home of the podcast. Sarah, thanks for the call. Let's keep going.
00:09:28 I've been listening to your podcast the last few weeks, and I'm loving it.
00:09:32 Beautiful. I appreciate the positive feedback. This one is a little bit more in line with where I thought the hotline might take us, in terms of conversation.
00:09:40 I just wanted to know if you can let me know how I can listen to the first episodes on iTunes. I can't seem to find them.
00:09:46 Okay, so, this is something that in the past few weeks has sort of occurred. Because we're on episode 131 of the podcast now, that means that there's a little bit of complication. iTunes generally limits a podcast, or the feed that a podcast is on, without boring you with the technical details, to 100. That means that any episodes past 100, those get lost in the shuffle and are no longer available on any podcast app feeds.
And we tried to increase that. You can. There are was to do it, but we tried, and I basically completely made the website shit itself, and it was down for a while. Nothing like website problems to cure a bad day. But in order to get around that, we sort of had to take the past episodes, so episodes 1-30, and take those off of the feed that feeds into podcast apps like the podcast player on iPhone, or any other podcast app where you're listening to this. That's the bad news.
The good news is that you can always listen on the website itself. You can go to WanderingDP.com, and then just enter episode one, or episode 20, or episode whatever, and you can see the original show notes page, and you can also listen to the show there. That's kind of clunky, because you can't really pick up where you were listening before if you stop.
If you want to listen to it actually in the podcast app, like podcast on the iPhone, or Stitcher, or something like that, over on Patreon, that is where the archive is going to live. If you sign up to be a Patreon member, you'll get all of the archive there, and you can listen to it through a private RSS feed. You can listen to it straight on your phone, whatever podcast app of choice that you would like. So, that's one way that we're going to try and get around it, if you want to make it a little bit easier to listen to those archival episodes. But that's where you can find it, so thank you, Sarah, for that.
00:11:32 I look forward to hearing back from you. Thanks.
00:11:34 Okay. That's it for the hotline. So, we had some questions. But like I said, probably better ... That last one was a little bit better. Keep it centered on cinematography stuff. And, yeah, we're going to keep going, because I think this thing will start to show itself as a value.
The other thing that we did over on the Patreon livestream was, we decided on who was going to be the next guest for this week. So, we've got Rupert Sanders today, which is going to be real fun, don't worry about that. Next week, we have Colin Watkinson. And for all of the shitting on English people that I've done on the show, we've got people from the UK. We've got that strong contingency going on for the next few episodes.
Colin Watkinson, who is the cinematographer behind the Handmaid's Tale. He's worked on shows, Entourage, lots of interesting stuff, and really a whole different workflow than we've ever talked about on the podcast for cinematography. As shows start to escalate in size and scale, the workflow changes, and it was interesting to chat with Colin. Again, face to face in Los Angeles. A really talented guy. So, he's going to be next week on the show, all thanks to the Patreon voting.
Okay, enough of the chitchat. Let's get into the featured interview with director Rupert Sanders. I think you'll enjoy that.
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Now, instead of that little pump fake that I did before, let's get into the episode with Rupert Sanders.
All right, Rupert, thanks for taking the time out of your day, and joining us on the podcast, today. It's a pleasure to have you on.
00:14:34 Pleasure to be here.
00:14:35 Nice. So, for people that ... A lot of people will be familiar with the feature work that we're going to get into and talk about, but some people lay not be aware of what you were doing before that, and how you got into it, and the level that you came into features that was so high. I'd be interested just in going back a little bit and telling us how you got started in the business, on the ad side of things. So, can you take us through that process?
00:14:58 Yeah, sure. I mean, it was quite a long time ago, now. But I went to art school. I never studied film. I studied graphic design. And when I left art college, I came to America, and I was just kind of floating about a bit, driving an old Cadillac with a friend up and down the coast. And we met someone who said, "You should come and work for my friend," and we're like, we don't really want to work. We're enjoying ourselves.
Anyway, it turned out that we ended up in the desert outside of Palm Springs, and the girl we were staying with was a production designer, and she was working with a commercial director called Tony Kaye, who at the time was at the top of his game. And he was in a helicopter filming a MiG jet flying 12 feet above a Formula One race car out in the desert, and there was lots of vans, and people shouting, and explosions and stuff, and I was like, "Damn, this is what I want to do."
I'd never thought about film. It never even crossed my mind. So, very naively, as like a 20-year-old art department PA, I started to ask Tony, "What if we did that? Why don't you put the camera there?" And everyone was like, "Don't talk to the director." But I guess naivety does sometimes pave the way.
But I got on well with Tony, and after that, he said, "You should be a director." And I said, "Okay, I'll be a director." And he gave me three people's names in London. So, when I went back home, I sought these people out. I didn't really know. Again, I was very naïve, and I knocked on the door of three of the biggest people in advertising's offices, and they looked me like, "You don't have a show reel. You're not a director." And I was like, "Oh, a show reel. That's what I need."
So, I went and I wrote this thing for Sony Walkman. The copy line was "Don't just walk, man." And I got this little kid who was rapping, and he was in the back of a limo. He was actually on the subway at first, with his short school tie, and he hit the door of the subway. It was the time of Biggie Smalls' first album, so he kind of became a young Biggie, and it was about following your dreams, and don't just walk, man, do your thing.
And so, I sold it then to Sony, so that was kind of a major leap for me. I was like, I can make something on my own with five friends and sell it. So, then Tony said, "Wow, this is great. I'll take you on." And so, for a few years, I was doing charity commercials, and smaller things, and gradually building up a body of work.
And then I had big breaks doing stuff for Guinness, and Nike, and Adidas, and then I came to America and started doing more work here. I started doing work for Air Jordan here, and Halo, and PlayStation, and Xbox, and stuff. When I first started working here, the video games market was really opening up in the commercial world, and I really wanted to make narrative stories, and that's kind of where I found my niche, I guess.
00:18:11 Yeah, and in the transition from the times you're doing all these ads, and ads at the very highest level, especially here in the States, how did you make the transition from that to filmmaking? When you decided, okay, I'd like to get into the longer-form stuff, did you lay out a plan of, I have to do a certain number of shorts, and that way I can transition into something smaller, and then get bigger from there? How did you decide to do it?
00:18:39 Yeah, I mean, ironically, at the same time that I was driving around America, I really wanted to make a film about transients on the railroads. So, I wrote that, I was developing that, and I thought, this will be my first film, and we sold it, and it just kind of never really went anywhere. And so, I did a couple of short films. I did one called D-minus, which is based on my brother-in-law's experience growing up in Tarzana in the '80s. And then I did another one based on Black Hole with Charles Burns' novel, which I actually really wanted to make that film, and I knew it was out there, so made a short to try and get it.
Neither of them moved forward to the feature level, but I did them, and I really enjoyed doing them. I knew that I really wanted to find that feature. And I guess it was easier for me to get a bigger studio picture at that time than it was to get a more independent film off the ground. And I was lucky, and I got asked by Steven Spielberg to come and meet him when he saw some of my Halo work, and then a couple of other producers saw some of my work, and I went to meet Joe Roth, and we had a very good meeting. And he said, "What about a fairy tale movie?"
And it wasn't at the top of my agenda at the time, but when I went home and thought about it, I was like, I'd like to do something in a genre that I could something different in. And I'm obsessed with history, I'm obsessed with Victorian, kind of obsession with fairies and fairy tales, and Alice in Wonderland. Those kinds of things were all things that I grew up with, and I thought that I could do something in that genre. And I also liked the idea of having a strong female lead, and an unexpected version of an older fable. So, that was the first film I did. I went from naught to a very big budget very quickly, which was quite a shock.
00:20:42 Yeah, I can imagine. And how did that change your ... or, how did that mold the way you approach these things? Did you just consider it like a very long ad that you were approaching, and you still had people responsible for making creative decisions in the process that you had to collaborate with? How did that change the way that you approached the work?
00:21:04 I think, in a way, coming from commercials, I was pretty well equipped. I had been making commercials for 10 years, so I knew a lot about visual effects. I knew a lot about camera, and how to move the camera, where to put the camera. So, that side of it, the technical side of it, wasn't a challenge. I think the challenge was going from one or two cameras to seven cameras, having action sequences with hundreds of people, versus 20. So, it definitely ...
But I've done big kind of war scenes for Xbox, so I kind of felt at home in that world, and the stuff that I guess I hadn't really flexed my muscles in was dealing with actors, so I did an acting course for three months, so that I understood the language of actors, and how to ... I didn't want to be able to act in order to express them. I think it's just understanding the process, and understanding their language, and that made me a lot more confident going into it.
So, when I was on the set, the first thing we started with was big action sequences, and I was like, all right, that I can handle. And then my first big, dramatic scenes are with Charlize Theron. She's a very gifted actress, and very talented, and very powerful, and so I felt like, unless I'd had those acting ... that time to understand the process a bit more, I at least felt I had something on the back of a post card going into it, rather than, again, total naivety. And she's quite formidable, Charlize, and I didn't want to be cowering in a corner, saying all the wrong things, so I felt, going in, I had a bit more confidence.
00:22:53 Yeah. And does that confidence come from ... are you someone who is very pre-production heavy? I imagine, on a movie like this, and on some of the commercials, you mentioned being very familiar with the technical side of the effects and whatnot. Is that something where, if you do the pre-production, you feel more comfortable on set, on the day, to be able to improvise and find moments, because you have that backbone? Is that how you like to work, rather than getting there on the day?
00:23:18 Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think you'd be foolish to show up on the first week of $170 million budget of your first film, going, "What are we doing today?" I think it's very important to have that prep work. And like you said, if you've got your shot list, and you've got your little sketches of what you're doing, you know what you're trying to say in each scene, then you feel confident, and you do have the room and the time. It buys you the time, which is really the most important thing that you can have on set.
You don't need all the toys and all the tricks, you need the time. You need the time to get the performance right. You need the time to build the performances, and the way the camera observes the performance, so that the combination of the two equals what you're trying to say with the scene, and the dynamic of the scene needs that work.
But also, that gives you, if you're prepared, and you're not all scratching your heads, going, "How do we get the camera there?" Or, "Maybe we should do it like that." You have to go into that day knowing exactly what you're doing, and then you can say, "You know what, maybe I'm just going to try doing something quickly, very different. Let's do this. Let's do that." It just gives you more time, and therefore more freedom.
00:24:31 Yeah. And from the outside, that sounds like a very plausible thing that would happen, that you prepare, and you find the time on the day to do that. Did you find that to be the case? When you get on set, and you're actually there, and all those people are there, did you still feel the pressure of, oh shit, we've got to stick to what we've got because we only have so much time? Or did you loosen up and allow yourself to find those moments?
00:24:54 No, I think it's an interesting point. I think the things you're doing deviating from the plan are kind of subtle, and sometimes you go in with the best laid plan, and the actors block something totally different. So you're like, okay, well, that's fine. You can't control an actor and say, "No, you've got to be here, you've got to be there, because of what we're doing visually," and I learned that the hard way. But you have to go in and say, "Okay, I understand."
The one thing you don't really do in commercials, you don't really go in in the morning and block a scene. You turn up, you know exactly where everything's got to be, and you shoot it. Whereas, with a film, you put the scene on its feet. The actors inhabit the space, or the environment. And then you're kind of making these decisions quite quickly, as you're watching, as to where the camera should be and how you should shoot it. And that really just comes from experience, of being able to think quickly, and go, "Okay, everything's changed. We know that we've got to do it differently. All right, you go and get dressed. We'll meet you back here in half an hour, and we'll be ready."
00:26:07 Yeah. And in a process and a project like this, with a budget and the time, is it something where knowing ... again, you took that actors' course to develop the language. Did you have any chance to do rehearsals? Is that something that you'd be interested in? What was the process for you getting to know the actors beforehand, before you see them on set?
00:26:28 Yeah, I mean, I think to me, I always imagine rehearsals as being lots of people in track suits with chalk marks on wooden floors, and stagehands. But actually, to me, the biggest part of rehearsal really is conversation, and really understanding what the actor wants to do with the character, and them understanding what you want to do with the character. And so, I think that actually, if you go into whatever the scene is knowing what each of you are doing, then the rehearsal is kind of more of a functional thing, of how we're moving around the space.
So, the funnest part to me, I guess, working with the actors, especially on the last film I did with Scarlett, we spent a lot of time talking about the character. It's a very complex character, but we knew in every scene that we'd developed a shorthand about the character, so we'd discuss something for hours before, that on set, she's got to do that thing to illustrate that, or she would do that because ... And that comes from, to me, what is the rehearsal, which is building the character.
The rehearsals with all the cast on set weeks before is kind of a luxury, because most actors that are that successful aren't flying in weeks before to do rehearsals. You kind of have to take it as you can. You do, ironically, more action rehearsals than you do acting rehearsals, but I guess that's the nature of the two films I've done, they've been more visual and more action-driven, I guess. I'm sure, when I do something that's this pure, intimate drama, then obviously little rehearsal time is consumed by that, and not by all the other things you need to do on a bigger film.
00:28:22 Yeah. And that goes for, as you say, building the character, but when it comes to building the world of these movies, where it is quite big, and it's complex, and it's a lot of moving bits and pieces, when you signed on to do it, you said, "Okay, I'm going to do the film," what is the process like for creating that world? Is it first about finding collaborators? Is it about you going out and creating some sort of giant look book, where you take that now to people and show them the direction? Or where does the process start on something like this?
00:28:54 I think it's reading the script a few times. As a visual kind of thinker, whenever I read, I see, and I think most people do that. I think it's just trying to remember what you see when you first read it. And then, it used to be going to art book stores or the library, and trawling through thousands of books, and looking at images that kind of reflected what you were thinking, or inspired you. But now, to be honest, it's a lot of sitting in front of the computer, trawling through Tumblr and Google, and finding those images, and then I just create dump boxes of thousands of images, that then I start to collage them together and start to get a feeling of what I'm trying to express visually.
And that can be completely random, or it can be very cohesive, and then those things start to jog other ideas, and you're like, "Maybe we should do that scene all lit, or that scene at night, or let's design and android that's built out of ceramic china." It can be as simple as looking at a tea set in a catalog, and going, "I know what the android should look like." It's not that you're specifically looking for an android to rebuild. You're looking for ideas.
So that, I think, is the biggest process. And then, for me, I do a lot of sketching and drawing, and start to think of what is the underlying idea of what I'm trying to say with this film, and what do I want people to see and think, and what kind of world do I want them to be immersed in? And for me, the world creation is so important to be 100 percent real, that even if it's fantastical, it has to feel like you're dropping people into an environment that they've never experienced, and they are experiencing first hand.
00:30:47 Yeah. And then, once you go through that process yourself, and you're finding out all these things, what is the process like? Because a lot of the time we'll have either cinematographers or directors on the show that are very commercial-centric, and they try to move over into features, and they find that it's a different world, and people move in those circles that maybe don't move in the ad circles. When you get that sign on, okay, we we're going to do it, what's the process? Especially the first one, for finding your collaborators? You're still looking for people that you've worked with in the past, or are you getting recommendations from the studio, the producers? How do you go about finding the people that are going to help you along the way?
00:31:26 Well, I've never really moved in circles in either world. I've always found people along the journey that I've really enjoyed working with, and I've kept those people moving forward. So, there's been a small group of maybe 10 people who, as production designers, editors, and directors of photography, I've worked with since the very beginning. Jess Hall, who is a DP I work with often. We started straight out of St. Martens together. He shot the Sony Walkman thing I did, and we've worked together on numerous commercials, and he just shot Ghost in the Shell for me. And other people like Greg Frazier, and Chris Zeus.
So, I've been lucky to have a group of cinematographers, and a group of designers, and an editor I work with pretty much every time, Neil Smith, out of work post. I have a great shorthand with Neil, and I'm not really looking for anyone beyond those people, because, like with the actor, we've done years of rehearsals. We really are in step with each other, and that's very exciting, coming to a new project.
00:32:54 Yeah, and in terms of director of photography, and cinematographers, are you someone that is very technically oriented with camera stuff? You'll talk to some directors, and they want to be in control of the lens choice, and where the camera is going, and other people will say, "We've hired Greg Frazier or Jess Hall, and they're going to be in charge of that, and it frees me up to worry about other things?" Where do you find yourself in that scale?
00:33:19 No, because I think being a good collaborator is developing that. I'm never going to tell Jess where to put his key light, or what stop to be at. But we will talk through a scene, and we'll go, "Yeah, that's great, let's put it up." I sometimes am very specific about lens and where the camera is going and how it's moving, but again, I rehearse with those guys, and we'll go, "How do we want it to look? What are we trying to say? What's the texture? What's the style of the cinematography through the film?" And we'll come to it through the same process as you do with all of the heads of departments, and your actors, is by conversation, by discussion, by illustration. And then, when we get to that scene, we're like, "This should be that thing we talked about, because we're trying to create that look in this scene."
00:34:10 Yeah. And in terms of the structure of the differences between the major ad world, the sort of high end ad world, where you've got to think about the creatives, you've got to think about the agency, and the client, and all those people who have influence in the final product, versus a feature film. Did you find, was there a period of adjustment of rearranging how you approached the work, because of the different systems?
00:34:39 No. I mean, I've always just done the work, and I understand that there's a hierarchy to both things. I think in advertising, it's got too much. It's funny, when I was doing Huntsman, I remember a couple of weeks in, I looked around me, and I was almost waiting for the "Everyone happy, can we move on?" And there was no one there. All right. It was kind of a little bit worrying, actually, having been for so long like, "Is everyone good?"
And I think actually that the advertising model has really got to change, because I think it's really suppressing creativity. I think that there just aren't that many good commercials anymore. I think the amount of great work has, over the last five or six years, really dwindled because, I think, obviously, fewer commercials are getting made.
Less money is being spent, therefore more rides on each project, and less clients want to make commercials, so the few that there are, they've put a staff of 50 people on set of them, making sure that nothing goes wrong, and everyone's trying to cover a different aspect of it. And you really stamp on anything that's creative, and you're constantly overthinking, is the client going to want that, or maybe we should do it that way anyway, just in case he wants it. And you just find yourself in a very straightforward model of filmmaking, which isn't the kind of advertising that I grew into with mavericks like Tony Kaye.
00:36:23 Yeah. And did you find, or did you know, after you do the first film, that this is the direction that you want to go in? Because I know a lot of people, the end goal is long form narrative stuff, and you work so long, and you say you've been in the ad game for 10 years at that point.
00:36:42 Was it something like, okay, this is exactly what I thought it was going to be like, and I want to do more of it?
00:36:48 Yeah, I very quickly ... I mean, I love commercials. I've had an amazing career in it. I've traveled around the world. I've worked with amazing people. I've been very lucky. And that was a blessing for me. Somehow, I just fell into it, and I literally did fall into it. I really never though that's what I would be doing, but the more I got into it, the more I enjoyed it.
And then, when I first did the film, you know, it was great to be in Pinewood. And you do become a child, when you go into the armory, and you see them making swords and shields, and you go to the prop show and tells, and they've got horses dressed in medieval saddlery and armor, and you go to the plaster house, where they're making all the stone for the castle. It's hard not to be kind of consumed in that, and it's very exciting, and I don't know what else I could possibly want to do, or be able to do at this stage. I've kind of burnt most of my bridges in committing to this life.
So, I think it is, it's a wonderful opportunity. And what I love most about it is the collaboration, and working with so many different types of creative people, from writers, authors, poets, to singers, to choirs, to people who just specialize in making medieval leather, to production designers, to illustrators, to model makers, to visual effects, special effects. It's an amazing array of misfits and creative people who love what they do, and inspire you, and your job is to inspire them.
00:38:46 Yeah. And on these, especially on the films, what does the structure look like for yourself, in working? Do you have people around you, besides the heads of departments? Have you got people there, the producer, or someone else, that you're chatting to in between setups, and making sure you're on track, and just bouncing creative ideas off of? What's the structure behind your decision-making process, there?
00:39:11 I think it's more, I think it's probably more, I have a very close relationship with my director of photography, and he's probably the person I have the most conversation of on a scene. And then, my editor, when I go at the end of the day and watch scenes coming together, he's probably the kind of yardstick of performance, and guiding the performance.
And the DP is who I talk most about how things are looking, and how to accentuate what we're looking for in those performances. But also, a good DP has got a good ... They're the kind of the first eye, in a way, on the performance, and I think that if you sense ... if they give you the nod that all is well, you're pretty sure it's all well, and their eye is glued to the viewfinder. But less and less. Usually, they're further back in the tent, on just a slightly nicer screen than I'm looking at.
So, I always like to be near the camera, but it used to be that the DP literally, the performance was to them. They had their eye on some of those performances anyway. I remember actually speaking, I think it was Wally Pfister, who I've worked with quite a lot, said to me that "I've been privy to having personal shows of some of the best actors in the world right before me, and I was all alone there listening to it live, watching it just through glass," and that's really true, that the more we get detached via the umbilical, the further away from the performance we get.
00:40:59 So, I like to be very close to the cameras, and I don't really sit down. I have a small clamshell, and I sit as close as I can to the performance, or where the camera is.
00:41:09 Yeah. And has it changed your workflow on set, or the way that you operate on set, in the transition from film to digital, as things start to change, as you say? Has it changed any of your, how you perceive a performance, and things like that?
00:41:24 No. I mean, I think as a director, you're always a little bit detached, because you are either watching it as it happens from the camera's point of view, and then reviewing it on screen. But I think, as far as workflow goes, I'm not, I don't notice a massive difference between film and digital, really, as far as the kind of on set life goes. I think there's a little less kind of ... The camera was quite selfish in a way, in the film era, that it demanded a lot of attention. Oh, it needs more film now. It needs feeding again. It needs a new battery. And digital just kind of quietly sits there and observes everything, without you needing to feed it too much. It was a bit of a diva, I think, a film camera. It was an actor who required lots of conversation, and lots of stopping what we were doing and focusing on it, where digital just kind of does the job quietly and efficiently.
00:42:32 Yeah. And when you get through with a project like this, you've been working on it for however many months or years that it's going through, do you immediately get done and say, okay, I want to dive back into something else? Or is it, I'll do commercials now, and try and have a project lifespan that is significantly shorter, just to have some fun and make some stuff that's been building in your head during that period when you've been working on one thing?
00:42:56 Yeah, it's funny. When you're working on one thing, you're pretty monogamous to it. There's not much time for having wild fantasies about other things. It's like, it's all-absorbing. There's really nothing else when you're on a film, because there's so many aspects you're having to work on. And that goes right up until the last minute, and then it premieres, and then you're done, and then suddenly you feel kind of a sense of grief for a while.
But also relief, because the bigger films, you're handling a lot of bandwidth, from the publicity, to the poster design, to the press tours, to the finishing cuttings, test screenings. There's a lot going on. The set bit is really the easy bit, although 90 days on set is grueling, usually with a couple of units running. You don't have time to think about anything else, and then when you're done, there is a relief.
And commercials are great, because you can say, all right, I want to get back to work, and I'll go and do something. But it's not as nourishing, because it feels, having gone into those journeys of big filmmaking, you come back to a commercial ... I still enjoy them, but it does feel very different, because it's much more surface. There's nothing beneath that surface. You can't really say that much with a commercial, you know?
00:44:32 Yeah. And in the time that the Huntsman comes out, did you actually go back into commercials, or do you say, no, I'm going to explore my options and see what's next, now that I've tasted the feature world?
00:44:45 No. I mean, the feature world, again, it's not like you've finished one and, oh, great, I'll do that one, please. They all take a lot of work. I did commercials after Huntsman. I met on other projects. I developed a couple of things that I was consumed in for eight months, and maybe they lost their momentum. And so, then you're back to square one, and that's very frustrating, but you can't really let it affect you, because films are mercurial, and sometimes you're just on a moving train, and you can't get off, and you're just going forwards, and other times you think you're going forwards, and actually, you're just stuck in the middle, and nothing is actually really happening.
So, I think people would love to just jump from one film, and then when they want to do the next one, they do it, but the films have their own desire, and they tell you when they want to be made, you know?
00:45:45 Yeah. And did you find that once you do get done with it, and it's a success, and things come out, that now you're getting ... Do you get a flood of fairy tale, we want you to be the fairy tale guy?
00:45:56 No, because I think Huntsman was in that period where that was kind of being explored, and then Ghost in the Shell is a very different film, and I think my next film will be a very different film, too. I mean, it's not ... In commercials, I've never just done "that thing," you know? I never was the car guy, or the slow motion guy. I don't even know what my pigeonhole was, but I was never inundated with a similar kind of thing.
And I think, films, you drive them yourself. People send you a lot of scripts, and you read a lot of stuff, and that's part of the education, too, and then it's just finding that thing that really gels with you, and you go, that's the story I want to tell. I really want to explore that world, or I'd love to work with them.
00:46:47 Yeah. And how different was the process in getting the job, when it came to Huntsman versus Ghost in the Shell? Because you sort of already had the track record. It wasn't a first time thing. Was it any more or less convincing, or any harder or easier to actually get on the project? Or, how did it come to you, really?
00:47:07 It came to me, ironically, through Steven Spielberg, who was going to direct it and then didn't. We had met after Huntsman, actually. He asked me to see about another film, but it wasn't something that we felt was right for me. And then he kind of kept in contact, and when he was talking about Ghost, he came to me. I went in and met him and the producers, and I had one meeting, and said, "This is how I see it, and this is what I'd like to do with it."
So, then they put me on it. It doesn't mean, once you're on a film, that it's A, going to get made, or B, going to get made with you. But you move forward with it, and you try and develop the vision for it, and then it's about selling it to the studio, and selling the script, and selling the budget, and so that took a long time. We were developing the look of the film for a long time, to show the studios what we were going to do, and then they decide how much they want to spend on it, who they want to star in it, those kind of conversations.
I'd love for the situation to be, "I'd like to do this one, now, and I'd like to do it for this money." It doesn't really happen that way. It's a long fight to get any film made. I think there's a tendency for people to think that it's just, you can do what you want, when you want, and it turns out exactly how you want it to, which is simply not the case. It's a hard fought battle of attrition for years, and you don't always win every battle or every skirmish. You might not even win the war.
00:48:52 Taking your experiences, was there any particular area where you had to learn something that you then adapted to, or put forth on Ghost in the Shell, to try and avoid that situation?
00:49:02 No, I don't think it's specific. I mean, you see these ... You understand them more for what you are, and when you're told no, you don't necessarily get upset about it. You just try and find a way to go another avenue in order to do it. You're always fighting for budget. You're always fighting for time, and that's for the good of the film. I think you want to do everything you can in your power to fight for what you believe in, and that's why people hire you. Ironically, they want you to fight them. They want you to have your opinion. They want you to push your agenda, because otherwise, they don't have someone steering the ship.
So, I think it's important that you stand up and fight for what you believe in. Even if ultimately, that's wrong, you have to be there to make your film or your commercial, and you have to deal with those battles as you go, in as polite a way as possible, but always trying to figure out a way of having the common good of the project always to mind. If you have to lose something in order to get something else, then that's what you have to do, and you have to make those decision almost momentarily on a film.
00:50:31 Yeah. And you'd mentioned earlier, when you're trying to get the film off the ground, and you're trying to get the studio into the script and the story, and then into the talent. What's the process like? Is it any different than in a commercial sense, for a casting process? Do you go away and choose, I don't know, the three people that you see in the role, and then you turn it over to the studio, or is it the reverse, they tell you these are the people?
00:50:55 Yeah, I mean, the studios usually are pretty easy to deal with in that, as long as you're not making crazy decisions. I think if you've got ... They need to make films that people go and see. They need to make films with movie stars. And the beauty of casting a movie star, or a group of movie stars, is that once you done that, you can kind of cast who you want, because the pressure is off. I think it gets harder when you have to build a cast together to cover a lot of global markets, versus having a big movie star who covers all those global markets.
I was able to cast Takeshi Kitano in a Hollywood movie, as one of the leads, who only spoke Japanese, and that wouldn't have happened if I hadn't had Scarlett Johansson staring in the film. So, it's kind of a currency. You've got to be clever with how you do it, and it's great to be able to get younger actors. I got Pilou Asbæk, an amazing Danish actor, again into a big role, and those things wouldn't have happened without Scarlett.
So, it's, they want to make sure that they have a profile name, and if they don't, they need a certain amount of names to get the film to be sold. But ultimately, their goal is the same as my goal, is to make a film that people want to see, whatever the budget.
00:52:32 Yeah. We've had directors on in the past, on the show, and we come and we ask them, is there one specific area of pre-production, or one specific area of production, where you find yourself often at odds with other people, or that you're fighting for that you feel is so important to the project that it's worth, as you said before, picking your battles, and doing it politely, and knowing when to chime in? Is there one particular aspect, whether it is casting, or whether it's production design, or the cinematographers? Do you find yourself often in one particular area, going to bat for a project?
00:53:07 No. I mean, I've actually very rarely had a battle with a studio over any heads of department. They usually want you to be surrounded by the people you like to work with. And then, I think the hardest part probably is around the test screening and the kind of final cutting of the film, because test screenings are probably the worst thing you can ever do. It's like standing naked on stage in front of a thousand people, and they all point out things that look weird about you, and you have to keep turning around, and then bend over, and they're all laughing and pointing. You literally feel so humiliated, and then you have to sit there in the back of the audience, while they all discuss the bits of you they didn't like, why it looked weird and wobbly, and why that bit had a mole on it.
So, it's a thoroughly, thoroughly debilitating process, and then you have to get back on, usually, a plane with all the studio heads, and you're still naked, and they're still all looking at you, and saying, "Well, we know you've got those bits. What are we going to do about them?" Or, "You're just unfixable." And so, it's a very ...
It's the time you probably feel most alone, I think, because so much is at stake, and that's when it becomes a bit of a battle, because then they start to have crazy ideas, like, "Let's cut the ending off," or "Let's get them to say this," and that's when, again, it's like you've run two marathons, and you're just crossing the finish line, and it's the last of these hurdles pop up. Your body just wants to say, all right, whatever, do it.
But those decisions at the last minute are the ones that, they stay there forever. What you create is there forever, and if you give in then, you might as well give in on day one. So, it's very important to keep the fight in you all the way to the finish line, because you make quick decisions at the end, because a lot of people are trying to fix a problem, that really can damage the film. And those decisions are indelible.
Someone recently described it really well to me, that there's a lot of temporary people making permanent decisions. And it's true. There's a lot of people that won't be in that job the next month or the next year, and yet they're making big decisions about a film that will go into people's homes and be on their shelf, or in their cloud or hard drive, for lifetimes. And so, it's very important to make your ... keep fighting until the end.
00:56:08 Yeah. And what has that experience been like for you? What is the process like? Is it, they edit, you go away, and you come back with different sections of the movie, and then you start to get feedback immediately? Or do you get to present, okay, this is it, and then the changes start from there?
00:56:26 It's usually, you'll present the first cut. But the first cut is always too quick. You have 11 weeks, contractually, to cut a film that you spent a year and a half on, which goes pretty quickly. So, obviously, your editorial department are kind of cutting as they go along, so they've got scenes together.
But then the other most harrowing part of the process, as I'm sure any director will tell you, is watching your first cut. Because that, again, is like looking in the mirror, and you're standing naked. It's a very ... You're like, "This doesn't work at all. What the fuck am I going to do?" It's a real kind of awakening.
And then you go away, and that's when the real work begins, of trying to make what you've seen make sense. And then you go and show it to the studio a week or two after that, and then they all look at themselves, going, "What the fuck is this?" And "What the fuck have we done?" And so, gradually, you find the film. What I didn't realize, I guess, going into it, was how much of the film you find editorially.
So many bits of films you know, scenes are made up of things that were shot out of different things, and a lot of over the shoulder dialogue when you can't see the actors' lips moving, and reworking scenes like that. I mean, really, it's not ideal, but sometimes it's what you have to do to kind of make things work, or fix scene flow, or stuff. It's been done since film started, I'm sure.
So, it's amazing how, gradually, the film starts to take another shape. You kind of make the film three or four times. You make it in your head when you first read it, and you're all happy and excited and giggly. And then you make it when you shoot it, and that's kind of fun but exhausting. And then you make it in the edit again, and you're a bit more tired. And then you make it kind of for the audience and the studio at the end, and then that's probably the most grueling and exhausting part of it.
00:58:45 Yeah. And when you look back at those different versions, if we talk about Ghost in the Shell. You look at that when you first read the script and you got all those ideas in your head, and this is how we're going to do it, and this is how it's going to be, and then you see the final version that people see in the theaters, is there elements that you can see in there that managed to survive and make it all the way through, or is it something that completely changes?
Rupert Sanders:00:59:10No. I think the bigger brushstrokes are there, and some of the smaller. Ghost is a very highly detailed film. It needs a few watchings to kind of see the layerings of it, so I'm proud of the work we all did putting that stuff in there, and putting it on the screen, and making sure that that level of detail and design was in every frame.
But I look back on files of stuff that I have, or drawings that I have, and it's funny. You see stuff that just really wouldn't have worked in the film, or stuff that is a very different version than the film. You always wonder. I don't think I've made a conscious decision, wrote down my manifesto of this is how the film should look. It just kind of, you guide it, and your touchstones are the things that you pull along with you. And there's many other versions that you just decided not to go down, because that was just what your feeling was.
Sometimes you look back and go, maybe I should have done it black and white, and whatever, anamorphic, and that just wasn't how we did it. But that's just part of, I think, the creative process. It's just where you are at the time, and what is influencing you, and what you grab onto, and what you discard.
01:00:33 Yeah. And do you find yourself able to look back now at the films, and see them for the films that they are, or do you still look at them and be like, "Oh, Jesus, we should have shot another take of that one."
01:00:46 Yeah, not yet. I mean, I haven't looked at either of them. They're harrowing processes. I remember actors saying they never watch their work, and I said, "God, if I was an actor, I'd love to sit and watch myself." But I really understand why they don't. It's hard. It's so weird, as ell, because you put so much of your ... you bleed for these things every waking hour for two-plus years, of your life, of your family life, social life, not that you have much while you're working. And so, everything pours out, and then it's just like a half an inch spine on a shelf in Best Buy. You're kind of like, is that really all this is?
But you have to just go along for the experience, and hope the audiences saw something in that theater that stays with them, and hopefully enriches in some way, or that they come away having enjoyed that time. Then it's worth it. But ultimately, then, it's like, I'm going to rest for a bit, and do other things, and then when the right project comes along, get back in the saddle.
01:02:10 Yeah. And does the two experiences, now knowing the amount of work and the volume, and the commitment of time that it's going to take, does that inform you now in your next selection of a project? Do you immediately get off of Ghost in the Shell and think, I never want to do that particular genre again, or I never want to do something that big again? Or does it all come down to the story, for you?
01:02:34 I think you never want to do anything again, once you come off a film like that. You're like, all right, I'm done with everything. No, I think it takes a while, and I think those were especially difficult because of the scale of it, and I think I didn't realize how much needed to go into it, and how many man hours of design needed to go into it.
And I would love to just turn up on a location scout and go, all right, we'll shoot here. Instead of, all right, we'll shoot here, and then we'll have to rebuild that bit, and then we'll do that bit in post. We'll have to put green screens there, and we'll have to make a special door, because they can't walk through a normal door. It's got to be a flyaway door. No, they can't wear that, because it's not sci-fi, or it's not medieval.
Just being able to dress people from what you can get on the shelves, and just walk around streets and go, "That looks nice," would be a very liberating feeling. We'll see. But that's also the fun part of the process. But as someone who's inspired by design and architecture and fine art, it is nice to build those worlds.
01:03:49 Yeah. And normally in closing, as we wrap these things up, we always ask for some sort of advice. And I think this is a unique opportunity, because we have a lot of people listening to the show right now that are either in the commercial world as directors, and doing big things, and then trying to make the pivot over and be successful, as you have. And I'd be interested to hear your take on advice that you give to people in that move, or maybe that they don't know about the feature world that you wish you'd known when you started the Huntsman, or when you started Ghost in the Shell. Is there any advice or things that you could possibly save some heartache on?
01:04:28 I don't know if there's any saving heartache. I think you've got to be prepared for heartache. It's about resolve, really, and I think it's about wanting to do it. I think that with commercials, it's a very, or at least when I was doing it, it was a very kind of happy and quite luxurious lifestyle. I think it's changing quite a lot, and I think it's dramatically changing.
But you have to be prepared to drop everything, or lose everything, and go in as ... It's a bit like going to school, I guess. You come in, do your five years. You get to the top of the middle school or high school or whatever, and then you have to drop everything and start as the kid again, with all that comes from that.
And I think you've got to be prepared to go and work for nothing. You've got to be prepared to lose those things that you were comfortable with, and you've got to be prepared to roll your sleeves up, and get stuck in, and be prepared to fight. And I think you've got to really focus on taking the project that really inspires you, that you want to make those sacrifices for, because it's certainly not easier.
It's funny, when I was working a lot in commercials, you come home exhausted after a three-day shoot. And I remember, I said to someone I was working with who had done a lot of films, I was like, "God, but it can't be like this on a film every day, can it?" And he was like, "Yes." 90 days like this, I'm going to die. It's like a marathon. You've just got to run slowly.
But it was. I was quite shocked going into Huntsman that I wouldn't have some time down. I guess I was just being a bit spoiled, but I thought that prep would end, and we'd have a couple of weeks to kind of gather ourselves, and then we'd start shooting, and it would all be quite luxurious. But literally, you end nine months of prep on a Friday, and you start shooting on a Monday morning, 5 AM, and you're like, "What the fuck?" And then you cut the film straight after.
Yeah, I think you've got to really want to do it, and if you really want to do it, you'll be prepared to do what it takes to do it. But, look, I've had a wonderful ride in commercials. I've had a wonderful ride in feature films. I hope both continue. I love each as much. The bright side is, there's no better job, so if you've even got an opportunity to do it, stick with it.
01:07:08 Beautiful. I like it. I like the dose of reality, too, right at the end, of just saying how hard it is. I'm sure people appreciate it. And I'm a big fan of the work, and I look forward to the next projects. Thanks for coming on and taking time out to share.
01:07:22No problem. Thanks so much, Patrick.
01:07:27 Oh, man. All right, everybody. A big thank you to Rupert once again for taking time to come on the show and talk about feature films, his transition, and the move from commercials to features, and that whole world. Hopefully you got a lot out of it. I know I did.
Now, coming up next week, I mentioned it before the interview, we've got Colin Watkinson, cinematographer behind Handmaid's Tale. He's going to be on the show next week. Looking forward to that.
If you are a Patreon supporter, make sure you check out the livestream this Thursday at 7 PM Pacific time. It's going to be a lot of fun. Get your projects in if you want to get those featured. Hit the hotline if you've got questions. Try and keep it focused on cinematography, rather than what you had breakfast. And that is, I think that is all the information that we have to share today.
Now, you heard the whole podcast, right? And the whole podcast brought to you by the Musicbed. When they said that they're making better music accessible to everyone, they were not kidding. They don't kid. There's no humor there. They just announced their all new membership program, the first music licensing subscription of its kind, releasing this summer. Musicbed believes everyone should have access to great music in their projects, regardless of the budget or workflow. Membership is here to make their world class roster of artists and composers available for all of your projects.
Now, membership will get you unlimited access to a majority of Musicbed artists, all at a flat monthly or yearly rate, based on the types of films that you make. And if you still want single-use licenses, never fear, they're not going anywhere. Membership is just a brand new option to make music licensing work better for you and your workflow.
They listen to people. Right? They listen to the customers. The customers send in, "Hey, this would probably be better if we tried this." Musicbed is smart enough and nice enough to go like, "You know what? Maybe you're on to something here. Maybe this whole membership thing might just work. We're going to be the crazy ones. Let's try it."
So, be one of the first to learn more at Musicbed.com/membership. And, of course, don't forget, you get 20 percent off your next on site license with the coupon code Wandering20. And that's a W capitalized. I'm not sure if that makes a difference, but someone out there will let us know, right? If you've used that code and it doesn't work, try a capital. Maybe it will.
Okay, that is going to do it for this episode of the podcast. Once again, many thanks for checking it out, and we will see you in the next episode. Actually, I'm probably going to put this on Instagram TV as well, if you are watching this. If you made it through 50 ... How long is this thing now? An hour and a bit? If you made it through that much on Instagram TV, you've done well for yourself.
Okay, check it out on YouTube as well, and leave a comment. Subscribe to the channel, or don't. Tell the channel to go fuck itself.
Okay, that's going to do it for this week. We will see you in the next one.
01:10:05 You've been listening to the Wandering DP podcast. For more information on topics discussed in this episode, and for show notes, visit www.WanderingDP.com. Thanks for joining us, and be sure to rate, like, and subscribe on iTunes.