Made in Frame: David Lowery’s Arthurian Epic “The Green Knight”
David Lowery wears a lot of hats—director, writer, editor, producer. As a creative who juggles multiple projects while traveling to points all across the globe, he’s always in motion.
His most recent feature, The Green Knight (on which he wore all of the hats), took him to Ireland for principal photography, with VFX by Weta Digital in New Zealand and Lucky Post in Dallas, and sound mixing at Skywalker Sound north of San Francisco.
Now in production on Disney’s upcoming Peter Pan & Wendy, David very generously talked to us about his many creative processes and pursuits in this installment of Made in Frame.
A direct route
David’s road has been lengthy, but only because he decided on his career path at the age of seven.
“I was on a playground with my friend, on a swing set, and we were talking about Star Wars as we often did, and I asked him if he ever thought he might make a movie. ‘I don’t think so,’ he said, but I had read some books about how movies were made and I was like, ‘I think I probably will.’ That was it, and I’ve had a one-track mind ever since,” David says.
After moving to Texas (which he still calls home), he completed his first short at age seven. His first feature, St. Nick, premiered at South by Southwest in 2009, and earned him the Texas Filmmaker Award at the AFI Dallas International Film Festival that year.
Since then, he’s earned numerous awards and accolades for such films as Pete’s Dragon, A Ghost Story, and The Old Man and the Gun, as well as a nomination for the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Ain’t Them Bodies Saints in 2013.
Obviously, he’s genre-agnostic, drawing inspiration from a wide variety of influences and experiences.
“My work just naturally reflects what’s troubling me or something I’m curious about.”
“I never choose a question or a theme when I set out to write a film or come up with an idea for a new project,” David says. “I have things in my life that I’m dealing with or philosophical quandaries that are bubbling beneath the surface. My work just naturally reflects what’s troubling me or something I’m curious about. Every film demarcates a different part of my life.”
The idea for The Green Knight came to David when he was working on another screenplay and had hit pause on it. Not a fast writer by nature, he’d wanted to challenge himself to write something quickly, from start to finish. Once again, George Lucas provided inspiration.
“I was going through some old boxes and found my action figures from the Ron Howard film Willow (written by Lucas) and thought about how much fun it would be to make a Willow-style fantasy adventure. I ran through a list of potential sources and remembered reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in my freshman year in college,” he says.
“It asks lots of questions about the value of one’s life, what matters. Is it integrity? Is it legacy?”
Those questions resonated with him at that stage of his life, and he completed the script in only two weeks. Six months later, he was in Ireland, prepping for principal photography.
Always one to keep moving forward, as David completes each film he immediately embraces new challenges and new ideas. “Once I finish a film, I’ll have watched it between 20 and 40 times, so I have no desire to watch it again,” he says.
“I’ve had my time with it and it’s time to cast it out into the world and let other people do what they will with it.”
It’s fitting that David’s an avid runner, a kind of metaphor for his non-stop, globetrotting work style.
But he stays deeply connected with his longtime creative partners no matter where he is—and Frame.io has played a big role in that over the course of his last several films, beginning with A Ghost Story in 2017.
His core team, Texas-based producing partners Toby Halbrooks and James Johnston, are part of what David describes as family.
“It’s important to me to work with my friends and to build a family as you make films. If you look at the credits, going back to my first feature in 2008, you see the same names again and again. Making movies is hard.”
“It’s a job I’m lucky to have, but it’s not easy. I think it’s better when you’re doing it with people you love around you,” he says.
David chooses to keep Texas as his home base because, he explains, “It allows me to not get so caught up in the business of making films. When I’m in LA, I find that I work a lot more. I’m already a workaholic, so it’s nice to be just a little bit off the beaten path.”
Another key Texas-based member of David’s team is his assistant editor, Presley Impson.
Throughout production and post on The Green Knight, David was barely ever in the same room with her—she was working out of Lucky Post in Dallas—yet they collaborated closely and seamlessly.
“Whether I’m in New York or London or Ireland, the way we’ve set up Adobe Premiere to function between us, we’re able to deal with the same footage in real time, and Frame.io was a big part of that,” he says.
“Uploading footage never feels like we’re uploading, it’s just there, and it’s broken down the geographic boundaries of the creative process in a novel way. Over the course of the past few movies I’ve made, we’re able to really focus on the creative side of things and to keep the process incredibly fluid.”
Creative fluidity is vital to David’s way of working, particularly because in addition to directing, he’s also editing. The Adobe Creative Cloud setup with the Frame.io integration in Premiere and After Effects allows David to easily preview and share composites.
“I work a lot in After Effects, constantly doing split screens and breaking things up. I like seeing how different layers affect each other,” he says.
“It used to be a situation where you’d export two streams of video, bring them into After Effects, and work on the comp. Now, it’s sort of magically in After Effects, magically back in Premiere. The walls have been broken down.”
“She can probably finish my sentences when I’m talking about this project, but we’ve spent almost zero time in a room together.”
Even more important is the fluidity in communication with everyone who needs to stay in touch with him, no matter where he’s working. “Frame.io has become vital to the process because it puts my collaborators in the room with me, even though we’re rarely physically together.”
“It is remarkable to me how little time Presley and I have spent in the same room, but at this point she’s one of the closest collaborators I’ve had on this entire process and has seen the movie more than anyone else—even Toby and James.”
We have the kind of shorthand that comes from sitting side by side. She can probably finish my sentences when I’m talking about this project, but we’ve spent almost zero time in a room together,” David says.
Also noteworthy is that this was the first time David actually didn’t have an on-set editor—because he was able to so easily communicate with Presley and to have the footage available and organized in Premiere if he needed or wanted to dip in and cut something himself.
Another key collaborator on The Green Knight was the team at Weta Digital for the visual effects. David’s previous experience on Pete’s Dragon had been more traditional and, as a result, less fluid.
“On that film, we’d have weekly VFX reviews where all the shots that were done over the course of the week were put up in a screening room and we’d all get on a conference call and talk through them. And it was always difficult, because sometimes we were just seeing shots for the first time and didn’t have the time to process what we were seeing,” David explains.
“But working with Weta, Presley would put the shots on Frame.io and I’d watch them, try them out in the edit, think about them, let them marinate. Then I could give very specific notes for them to turn around the next iteration.”
“The creative work was better because we could communicate more effectively even though they were in New Zealand and I was wherever I was. It never felt like there was a lag,” he says.
Frame.io also played a role in helping David and Presley get presentation cuts to A24. Because of the fluidity of their process, they were able to easily coordinate their efforts.
“I’d been in London and needed to turn around a new version of reel three,” David says.
“And I knew I was flying back to Vancouver and would have nine hours on the plane to cut. I let Presley know that I would have a layover in Seattle, so as soon as I was connected to wifi the project file would upload. She was able to take that, bring the reel into the long-form assembly, turn the cut around, and send it to A24 in Frame.io.”
As much as David relies on technology in service of creativity, he does actually appreciate new features in the tools he uses.
“I talk a lot about things being organic, but I like the fancy bells and whistles that come with new technology. When it comes to shooting, I’ve stopped delineating between post and production, because post really starts as we’re shooting.”
“The conversations about what toolset we’re going to use or how we’re going to use them begin at the same time that we’re choosing our camera and our format. I’m kind of hooked on Adobe Creative Cloud, and I use Adobe products on all my movies because it’s something that I know I can rely on.”
For David, it all comes down to keeping the creative process flowing and having tools that enable him to work intuitively.
“Premiere works the way I like editing software to work. There’s not a huge world of difference between Avid and Final Cut and Premiere, but Premiere is more malleable. I don’t consider working on anything else at this point, because it’s just one less thing to worry about.”
For a director and editor, less worry and less friction means a lot.
“When I use Frame.io, it feels natural to me. From the first time I used it on A Ghost Story, I fell in love with it. I remember one morning looking at dailies on my phone. I could wake up, lie in bed, and just look at the footage,” he says.
“I’d looked at dailies on mobile devices previously, but it felt more like I was looking at a database. But for the first time, with Frame.io, I could move my finger around on the screen and it did what I expected it to do. So from that point forward, I added it to my toolset because it felt right. It wasn’t just a device—it was interactive.”
The road ahead
It’s obvious that as a multitasking filmmaker, David relies on his tools to enable his process both functionally and creatively.
And as the tools continue to develop, his vision for the future of filmmaking has become more expansive.
“When I made St. Nick in 2009, I shot on a camera I owned, I edited on Final Cut Pro 7, and everything ended at my laptop. That was where it all happened. When we made Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, we shot on 35mm film and finished in a more ‘professional’ fashion,” he says.
“And I found myself being frustrated by the fact that you couldn’t make changes up to the last minute, because it would ripple into all the other processes. I was dreaming of a way in which everything could just terminate at the big screen for the audience.”
David envisions an even more flexible process in the future.
“I feel like with The Green Knight I could drive the ship the way I wanted to, and everything rippled out from the edit. I know there were a lot of people working to make that happen, but we’ve managed to make the post process more fluid, which is the way it should be.”
“It shouldn’t be rigid. And the tools you use should also be malleable. It’d be so great to just plug in my MacBook minutes before a premiere and play the finished movie off the editing timeline, because that would be the most up to date, and the best version of it,” he says.
“This wouldn’t have been possible five or six years ago, but it’s not just possible now—it’s possible to an extent that surprises me.”
The fact that David is able to work with his creative family from all across the globe is a luxury that’s not lost on him.
“This wouldn’t have been possible five or six years ago, but it’s not just possible now—it’s possible to an extent that surprises me. Whether I was working in Ireland or making random trips to London to see my wife, or prepping a movie in Vancouver, it really felt, on a daily basis, that we were working in the same room together.”
David’s journey to this point in his career has brought him to places that were once almost unimaginable.
From talking about Star Wars as a kid in Wisconsin to working at Skywalker Ranch on his Willow-inspired action fantasy to helming a new Disney movie, it’s fair to say that his possibilities are limitless.
And with filmmakers like David inspiring us to build even more flexible creative tools, the possibilities seem limitless to us, too.