Tech in Hollywood: 2 Filmmakers Breaking Barriers and Building Buzz
- Based on the critical success of her short film The Suitcase, Abi Damaris Corbin was heralded as “the next Kathryn Bigelow.”
- She and her producing partner Elena Bawiec worked closely with USC Cinema School’s Entertainment Technology Center to develop cutting-edge cloud-based post-production technologies that became SMPTE standards.
- How they made a 20-minute short look like a million-dollar+ production by using great tech, but without sacrificing strong storytelling and purposeful direction.
- How the humble beginnings of a scholarly wunderkind with an existential perspective after the Boston Marathon bombing paved the way for Abi’s career.
- The feature-film future of these powerhouse filmmakers.
Only five women have ever been nominated for Best Director by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Of them, only one has won: Kathryn Bigelow, for The Hurt Locker in 2010.
So to be hailed as “another Kathryn Bigelow in the making” is kind of a big deal. But at the rate Abi Damaris Corbin is going, no one who works with her would be surprised to see her holding an Oscar someday.
The South Boston native, who had a master’s degree by the age of nineteen and garnered huge recognition for her 2017 short film The Suitcase, is already busy on her first feature, which she’s both writing and directing.
As anyone who works in the industry knows, your success is the product of the hard work of a team of people. One of Abi’s best allies is her friend and executive producer on The Suitcase, Elena Bawiec (pronounced BAH-vietz). The two met while at the graduate Cinematic Arts program at USC and are now making their marks as filmmakers in Hollywood.
And they’re doing it by breaking gender stereotypes and busting through barriers on projects that are taking both filmmaking technology and storytelling to the next level.
Lights, camera, ACTION
So, you may be wondering, where does this Kathryn Bigelow comparison come in? In much the way that Bigelow handled the tense battle scenes in The Hurt Locker, yet allowed Jeremy Renner’s character’s biggest epiphany to happen quietly, in a grocery store, Abi directs the taut action with a cool confidence and lets her main character come to his realizations organically and without sentimentality.
The Suitcase is another example of a female director who can make films that matter while busting the “women don’t do action as well as men” myth. It also busts the “women are less techy than men” myth.
It’s worth noting, however, that neither the action nor the tech is gratuitous. Abi’s story demanded the kind of heart-pounding images, split-second editing, and risk-taking sound she used to bring life to this story. As Elena states, “The technology is important in terms of making the production process simpler, which makes it easier to tell the story.” It’s no wonder that Elena’s an enthusiastic Frame.io user, which she’s employed on numerous projects with production company Row Five. “I’ve used Frame.io across continents and timezones, and having precise, frame-accurate notes saves so much time. Also, we’ve never had any technical glitches or issues. That’s so important when you’re working with teams and clients.”
Following The Suitcase, Elena, too, has worked on her share of action-oriented projects. The recent short proof-of-concept, Megan, directed by VFX wizard Greg Strasz, is set in the Cloverfield universe and has garnered nearly 1.2 million views on YouTube. (The DP for the short was Markus Förderer , ASC, BVK, who shot Independence Day: Resurgence. It was produced by Jean de Meuron, Giuseppe Mercadante, Olcun Tan, and Nic Emiliani).
Elena and Abi believe in cultivating a team of trusted people who you can count on to both give their all to the production and to offer ideas that may improve the end result. As Abi says, “Bringing in other artists’ voices makes me a lot better.”
The (Suit)case study
As many success stories in this business go, Abi happened to be in the right place at the right time.
“I was sitting in the courtyard and talking to a younger student, who was one of my mentees, and one of the guys at [USC’s ] Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) overheard my conversation about the way I think about tech. He knew that I already had my master’s before coming to USC and said, ‘Hey, we need to hire her. She’s a director and is interested in pioneering technology.’”
At first, Abi declined; she was too wrapped up with directing and being on-set. But after some persuasion, she accepted and is now “very, very grateful that they didn’t let up.”
The ETC is a think-tank and research entity founded by George Lucas in 1993 that includes the participation of The Walt Disney Studios, Warner Bros., Technicolor, and many others.
Established to test emerging entertainment technologies, The Suitcase was designed to be a case study for the C4 (Cinema Content Creation Cloud) technology, which involves using a unique digital media identifier as metadata for all footage. The footage can then be accessed via the cloud throughout the entire workflow, from acquisition through delivery.
Essentially, this meant that every bit of footage was searchable throughout every stage of production and post by anyone who needed to access it. After the production wrapped successfully, C4 became a SMPTE standard, thanks in large part to the efforts of ETC producer Drew Diamond (who, along with Daniela Ruiz, produced The Suitcase), cinema cloud architect Josh Kolden, and Erik Weaver, global marketing director at Western Digital.
Additional contributors to the project included Arri (the filmmakers primarily used ALEXA XTs) and Technicolor, who helped create an HDR (high dynamic range) workflow throughout the entire process for the most realistic, highest quality images.
The Suitcase was cut on Avid (version 8.4.5) at DNxHD 115, and Technicolor actually transcoded the files on set from a DIT cart. The elaborate pipeline included G-Technology drives for storage, while Amazon Web Services and Google partnered with ETC to distribute to other departments (such as the VFX and DI facilities) via the cloud.
The people behind the technology
But wait. That’s a lot of tech-speak for a film that was largely recognized for the strength of the story and direction. “You can learn the tech on anything,” Abi says. “It’s the people behind the tech who make the difference.”
She and Elena built a large and diverse crew (approximately 100 people), of which only Abi and Elena themselves were students at the time. How did they choose whom to involve? How did they know who the right people would be?
Abi’s short answer: “They cared.”
Elena elaborates. “We couldn’t hire super expensive crew because of the budget. Lots of people say that it looks like a million-dollar film, but obviously, it wasn’t. So we found great people who were professionals, but were maybe starting out in their careers and wanted to work on this.”
Many of those who worked on The Suitcase had been on the indie circuit, honing their crafts and receiving awards and accolades. Editor Chris Witt cut the Oscar-nominated short Kavi. Cinematographer Jon Keng received the award for Best Short Film at the Golden Rooster Awards (China’s Oscar equivalent). And Elena’s co-executive producer, Jean de Meuron’s film La femme et le TGV was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Live Action Short Film category.
Certainly, Abi and Elena got the most out of their crew. They had a brisk production schedule of seven shoot days, some of which took place at an airfield—a difficult location to secure. “I’m a perfectionist,” Abi says, “and I push my team really hard. We all push each other really hard.”
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From Boston and Moscow to USC
If you’re going to graduate by the age of nineteen, you need to get an early start; Abi began college at fourteen and worked incredibly hard along the way. With four older siblings whose mother was a teacher in the Boston school district, her achievements are her own. It’s a testament to her insatiable appetite for learning and storytelling. Also, she says, “I’m extremely stubborn. I don’t take no for an answer.”
Elena describes Abi as “tenacious, driven, and amazingly creative. She can really ignite the passion in other people.” Elena would know. The two began working together when they were still students at USC, where Abi attended after having earned her first master’s degree in Performance Studies, and Elena attended after leaving her career as a broadcast journalist and theater producer in her native Moscow.
While Abi followed the director’s track, Elena studied producing. Both found in each other a need to tell stories that matter, and to work with people who are as collaborative and right-minded as they are skilled. Thus was a partnership formed.
Inspired by reality
The Suitcase, for those who haven’t seen it, is inspired by true events surrounding the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It follows a day in the life of a young airline baggage handler who steals from a suitcase, only to discover that in it are materials that are part of the terrorists’ plot. What follows is his effort to get the suitcase into the hands of the authorities to prevent the further loss of life, even if that means admitting to the petty theft he committed and putting his career on the line.
At its heart, this is a story about a young man, with a dream of becoming a pilot, who comes to a crossroad: he risks losing everything in order to do the right thing. It’s a story that’s also very close to Abi’s heart.
The epiphany for the film came after Abi’s mother and her young niece and nephew were at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, the year of the fatal bombing that killed three and left hundreds others severely wounded (today happens to be the 6th anniversary of that fateful day.)
Fortunately, Abi’s family left shortly before the bombing occurred. But it was an event that shook her to her core and made her want to put good into the world. “I’m very introspective and I always want to grow. This made me realize that life is short. There are a lot of problems in this country. If, as an artist, you’re not going to help, then who will? And if not now, when? Storytelling is my vehicle for helping.”
Like her central character in The Suitcase, Abi knew that she didn’t want her humble beginnings to hold her back from her goals. There’s a scene in the film when the main character, Joe, takes an opportunity to sit in the cockpit when no one is looking, and pretend to be the pilot.
“When I was trying to pay my bills, I got a job at an educational tech center. Walking into that studio for the first time was like when Franek steps into the cockpit. I felt like I was on hallowed ground and I wanted to touch everything and was afraid to all at once,” she says.
The future of these filmmakers
Looking at Abi’s trajectory, you wouldn’t imagine that gender bias has ever been a factor. And, much like the women we spoke to for last month’s article about women in post-production, she doesn’t dwell on it. “There’s always going to be a fence,” she says. “That’s cool. Let’s climb.” She’s also committed to never making it an “us versus them” thing. “It’s about educating men and women to create an atmosphere where both can thrive.”
Elena talks about how there were times when she was, for example, initially learning about post-production and how she was sometimes talked down to by men. “I didn’t let it stop me,” she says. “If I had questions, I kept asking. I didn’t get upset, because I knew that if I wanted to learn I had to be persistent.” That said, she acknowledges that as a woman you do have to “be on your game 100 percent. You can’t afford to make mistakes.”
Abi’s feature project, which she’s just finished writing and will direct, is titled Swatted and takes place in the world of eSports—professional gaming. Will it involve some kind of new or immersive technology? “I’ll have to follow up with you on that,” Abi says with a smile.
As for Elena, about to hit the festival circuit is another recent project with Greg Strasz titled Incendium, shot in 2017 and produced by Elena, Jean de Meuron, and Michael Schwarcz. Described on IMDbPro as “a celebration of creation: an immersive cinematic voyage, examining life and death through the movement of dance. The story explores an unpredictable force of kinetic grace, centering on the personification of the cycle of life.”
According to Elena, the production was extra challenging. “We shot it in crazy weather conditions. It was insane and could warrant its own interview about how to make a movie when your crew can’t get out of their vehicles because the wind is so strong you physically cannot open the door. But we powered through.”
Clearly, both filmmakers don’t shy away from any challenge that confronts them. Both possess a strong and clear commitment to telling stories that matter, with people who care as passionately as they do. Both want the freedom to explore all sorts of stories without being limited by preconceived notions of what creative lanes women should stay in. “You put in the time, you put in the work, you can thrive,” Abi says. “I want to make sure that happens in our time and our generation.
No matter the gender or genre, that’s the future of filmmaking.
Photography by Irina Logra.