Made in Frame: How “Missing” Builds a Modern Cinematic Language
In 2018, a stylistically groundbreaking film called Searching premiered. Director Aneesh Chaganty worked with editors Nick Johnson and Will Merrick to develop a modern cinematic language that fully immerses the viewer in the ordeal of the film’s protagonist as he searches for his missing daughter. The central conceit? His experience is also our experience. Everything we see is what he sees in his computer or on his phone—social media, text messages, and other forms of digital communications—as he pieces together what might have happened to her from the digital clues he discovers.
In order to bring this vision to life, the editorial team built a unique workflow, using motion graphics created in Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects, and Premiere Pro (all available in Adobe Creative Cloud) to craft computer-screen “performances” that incorporate the live-action footage to mimic that experience. The result is a film where even subtle details like the movements of the cursor become significant and emotionally evocative. With a 92 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Searching (which cost less than $1 million to make but earned more than $75 million at the global box office) raised the bar for what movies about digital experiences need to do to authentically resonate with a technically savvy audience.
Now in theaters, Missing builds on that workflow, aided by advances in Adobe Creative Cloud and Frame.io. And we were lucky enough to speak to both directors and their two editors about their experience on this film.
Advances in careers
It wasn’t just the software that advanced during that time. As Aneesh shifted into the role of writer and producer, Searching editors Nick and Will moved into the role of co-directors on Missing. The USC connection that originally brought them all together continued as they passed the baton to two new editors—also from their USC days—Arielle Zakowski and Austin Keeling.
“I knew from the beginning I wanted to go into editing and started working as an assistant editor in the commercial world where I stayed for nearly a decade on and off,” Arielle says. “During that time, I also started editing documentary projects and a couple of different shows for Netflix [notably Chef’s Table and Making a Murderer], which is how I worked my way into longer-form projects. I always knew that I wanted to get more into scripted narrative work, so when this film came up I was super excited.”
Austin took a different route. “After graduating, I wrote, directed, and edited a low-budget indie film. Since then, I’ve just been doing freelance editing—a lot of digital content—and also directing my own projects. And then I actually worked for a couple of months on the localizations for Searching [to translate the screen graphics into the many different languages the film is released in] because I knew Nick from USC and I had some free time. He asked if I’d be interested, and that was a good crash course for figuring out how this type of film is made. When this project came up, I said ‘absolutely.’”
As with Nick and Will during the previous film, Arielle and Austin instantly clicked creatively—a necessity because, like their predecessors, both editors touched virtually every scene. Arielle also describes their working relationship as “a joy,” especially because they began the film during the pandemic and had to spend the first eight months working remotely.
“We were so thankful that we had each other during this crazy time,” Austin says. “At the beginning of the project we would stay on Zoom with each other just in case one of us needed anything. So it was kind of funny when we first met each other in real life because it was like ‘Oh my gosh, you exist outside of the computer screen!’”
Living inside Adobe world
It’s an interesting “life imitates art” moment for a team that’s constructing a cinematic world that unfolds wholly within screen environments.
From the beginning, the team never considered using anything other than Adobe Creative Cloud for this project. The process invented by Nick and Will for Searching was the springboard for Missing—why reinvent a very successful wheel?
Along with the directors, Arielle and Austin began pre-production by creating an animatic for the in-screen content, which would function as a storyboard for principal photography. Then, during production, they cut along with camera to ensure that the choreography was working. And that, of course, was followed by extensive post-production. Although, as Nick and Will point out, what was created in pre-production was all a part of post-production, particularly in terms of all the animation and choreography.
“I can’t think of another example of a movie besides a Searching film that would do something like this, but from day zero throughout the entire project, this movie lived in Adobe world,” Arielle says. “We started with blank timelines in Premiere Pro and began by screenshotting different assets that would be used in the computer and bringing them into Photoshop to modify them. The directors would screenshot themselves and we would temp that into a FaceTime window, for example. That led directly into when production began and we essentially had our previs as the backbone of the movie already completely timed out.”
The ability to quickly previsualize the in-screen choreography also played a big part in finessing the script. “It was a useful tool for the writing process because they could see the scene they wrote and then see what was or wasn’t working, and could modify the script,” Arielle says. “Once a day we would get on Zoom with them and talk over either the scenes we were going to do or the scenes we had just done. And whenever they were taking a break from writing they would look at things on Frame.io.”
After picture lock the whole movie went through After Effects, where all the elements were replaced with the 4K high-res graphics (most of which were created in Illustrator) and all the finishing touches, like motion blur or handheld camera movements, were applied. Even the final export of the film for the DCP (Digital Cinema Package) came out of After Effects.
The right tools for the job
Back when Searching was made, they shot the majority of their footage on GoPros and iPhones. This time, camera choices were integral to making every asset we see on screen look as though it was captured authentically. “The dedication to details and accuracy on this project is like nothing else I’ve experienced before,” Arielle says.
That’s why the team used no less than eight different kinds of cameras over the course of the brief 20-day shoot. According to Nick, director of photography Steven Holleran tested a lot of different cameras. “I think the biggest thing for us was that it needed to feel grounded, but it also needed to give us latitude in post,” Nick says. “You know, if we actually shot with just web cameras, it wouldn’t look very cinematic, and we always knew we wanted this to be released in a theater.
So one thing that really went into the decision-making process was we knew we needed deep focus. We knew we didn’t want issues with cameras with shallow depth of field, which meant we needed to shoot at a really high ISO and also meant that we needed a camera that wouldn’t be really noisy in low-light situations.”
The Sony A7S III was chosen for its small form factor, 4K capture, and 12,800 ISO, which gave them the depth of field they wanted. It was also sometimes used in place of iPhones for handheld sequences (in which case the team had to alter the image quality to better match with the actual iPhone 12 footage they shot). The Sony RXO II was the action camera needed for the closing laptop sequence, and vintage Sony Handycams were used to replicate “found” footage.
The team then chose RED KOMODOs for capturing news footage, and the DJI Inspire 2 for the aerial news footage. Alexa Minis were chosen for the re-creation sequence, and the IR: REOLINK RLC-810A 8MP infrared camera captured the nighttime security camera footage.
“I don’t think any other program could have supported what we were doing.”
But the most important tool of all? Adobe Creative Cloud. As Nick and Will demonstrated during Searching, their toolbox included Premiere Pro, After Effects, Photoshop, Illustrator, and Frame.io. Arielle says, “I don’t think any other program could have supported what we were doing.”
The complex in-screen images in both movies—multiple windows, live action within UIs, pop-ups, moving cursors—all had to be created from scratch and animated with precise choreography. Will explains his and Nick’s roles in the graphics creation. “We were very hands-on with the graphical animation side, but they [Arielle and Austin] edited every cut in this movie, including the previs.”
Because the compositions are so elaborate and multi-layered, one of the limitations Nick and Will bumped up against during Searching was having to nest the many elements, which required a lot of manual adjusting asset by asset, especially when they made creative decisions to change the framing of a shot, for example. “They would essentially build the wide shot of the desktop screen, nest it for each shot, and then zoom in or move it around how they wanted,” Arielle says. The nesting process required them to make adjustments manually, a laborious process of counting frames.
This time, the editors used Adjustment Layers in Premiere Pro, which lets you apply the same effect to multiple clips on the timeline. Effects applied to an Adjustment Layer affect all layers below it in the layer-stacking order. “It was as easy as, ‘Oh, we want to punch in 200 percent. There you go. Now our shot is a close up,’” she explains.
Another important innovation for the team was the advent of Productions in Premiere Pro, which wasn’t available during Searching. In fact, Missing was the first project to use it. Since then, Productions has become popular for longer-format projects like films or episodic series (the Devotion team recently used it, as did the team for The Bear) and is essentially a collection of Premiere Pro project files inside a folder that can be thought of as a cohesive unit—an evolution of a project file that provides a streamlined new framework for organizing multi-project workflows.
With Productions hosted on LucidLink, the editors were able to easily share work when they were working remotely. “We only worked remotely during the previs process,” Arielle says. “As soon as shooting began, we moved into a space and then essentially did the same thing on a shared server. But Productions was really, really useful because we were passing scenes back and forth and it was just instant. Like, ‘Okay, I’m done. I closed out of it. Now you can open it.’ The directors took turns sitting with the two of us in two different rooms. So if I finished something, we could just open it up in the other room. It’s super seamless to use.”
Austin agrees. “Arielle and I were talking recently and it’s so second nature now. It just feels so seamless and so easy to work in that I almost forgot we were doing something that wasn’t used on the first one. It was great. And also our AEs were able to jump into sequences and make tweaks and add assets while we were working on other sections. So it really came in handy for the whole process.”
“Even during the shoot they would be loading the dailies into one Project file while we’re working in another,” Arielle adds. “And then as soon as they’re ready, we just open it and can start immediately watching through them.’”
“It was so helpful to be able to upload a link, send it to the directors, and then they could comment directly on it with their notes.”
The pre-production and production process was further streamlined by Frame.io, which the team relied on to share notes throughout. Especially given the quantity of elements in each screen, specificity really mattered. “During the remote period it was so helpful to be able to upload a link, send it to the directors, and then they could comment directly on it with their notes,” Austin says. “It’s how we did the entire previs section before we were working in the room together. The producers were able to also get into Frame.io to share their notes, and again it was a seamless workflow.”
Nick agrees. “We were constantly doing cuts of scenes that were being uploaded to Will and me and the producers. I had Frame.io on my phone and I would just download the scenes on set, including the previs, and Will and I could just check it out real quick be like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what we did.’”
On Searching, Nick and Will relied on Illustrator to create vector graphics, which are infinitely scalable, so they could zoom in as much as they wanted and everything remained sharp. And both directors sing the praises of After Effects—for Missing they used version 22.6.
Both Arielle and Austin had, of course, previously edited in Premiere Pro and were experienced in Photoshop. But After Effects and Illustrator were new to them—and vital to the production. The relative newcomers were pleasantly surprised by how intuitive it was to get up to speed.
“I would say honestly what I do love about Adobe is that it is easy to pick up. I don’t think you need to be like the most technical person in the world to figure it out. We learned a lot about this specific process while we were doing it. And now, now we’re pros,” Arielle says, laughing.
One of the features they relied on was Dynamic Link, which turns After Effects into a frame server for Premiere Pro. When you move the Premiere Pro playhead over a dynamically linked comp clip, Premiere Pro asks for a frame from the After Effects comp, and After Effects delivers it.
“It was great,” Austin says. “Because when we were locked and finished with the rough version of the film, which had all the real footage in it but none of the final graphics, we just dynamically linked each sequence over into After Effects and it was a quick, painless process. And then from there we were able to start swapping out all of those temp graphics with the final high res graphics.”
The editors used After Effects for so many other tasks, like adding motion blur, vignetting, camera shake, and mouse moves. “We had already sketched out where the mouse was going in Premiere Pro with just simple A to B movements, but then the directors dialed in the final mouse moves using Motion Sketch to give the movement a more organic feel,” Arielle says.
“We just dynamically linked each sequence over into After Effects and it was a quick, painless process.”
Austin explains that they also used Frame.io extensively in that part of the process. “We were sending graphic references to our graphics teams via Frame.io so they could build out the final elements.”
And their on-the-job training in Illustrator was equally smooth. “When the graphics team would deliver the high-res Illustrator files, we would go in and add details ourselves,” Austin says. “Now I love using Illustrator. What a great time.”
When it came time to create the more than a dozen foreign language translations for the wide international release, Austin was well acquainted with the process from his stint on Searching. With the type already animated, it was simple for them to replace the high-res text for all the language versions.
A labor of love
According to the team, the process of creating this film took about three years. “We started in September of 2020 from a clean slate building the previs,” Austin says. “They shot in April of 2021 and it was a pretty extended previs timeline because of COVID. But we were able to really finesse a lot during that time.”
Note that out of the three years of production, only 20 days were spent capturing live action footage. After the shoot, the team then spent about a year editing, until moving into finishing in spring of 2022. “Another fun thing is that this was such a long process that the Mac OS updated twice while we were doing it,” Austin shares. “So we built the whole thing in Catalina, then tore down and rebuilt it in Big Sur, and then updated it to Monterey. With Monterey, there’s all those blurs on apps, and seeing those things come to life in the finishing in After Effects was really satisfying.”
To say that this film was made “in the box” is an understatement. But what’s also notable is that so much of what this team accomplished was with software that was right “out of the box.” Just as Nick and Will experienced during Searching, Arielle and Austin discovered that the power of Adobe Creative Cloud and Frame.io was readily accessible as it stood, without additional plug-ins or modifications.
“It really was a movie made by a small group of friends in a couple of rooms, just putting everything we had into every frame.”
In the end, the entire team agrees that this film was a special experience for everyone involved. “It really was a movie made by a small group of friends in a couple of rooms, just putting everything we had into every frame,” Nick says. “I think the end result is something that at any given point, when you pause the movie when you’re watching it, you’re going to see something really, really interesting.
“And there’s a lot of love put into every frame,” Will adds.
The editors agree. “We’re just excited to be a part of it. You know, seriously, we loved working with Adobe products on this,” Austin says.
And in yet another example of life imitating art, the filmmakers’ pursuit of every detail in every frame is no less passionate than the movies’ characters’ determination to find their missing loved ones. Because, after all, any artist will tell you that for them, their creations are their loved ones.