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Imaginary Forces: “Minority Report” FXers Kurt Mattila and Matt Checkowski

In the futuristic world of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, crimes are prevented before they happen. The Department of Pre-Crime is able to tap into the mindscape of three telepaths, the Pre-Cogs, wired into a computer system that allows their visions (or ‘previsions’) to appear on a monitor. It’s almost like an interactive movie, with Unit Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise) sifting through the images as though rewinding or fast-forwarding on a futuristic editing console.

These previsions outline the scene of a crime and the act of murder itself, as indicated during the opening sequence where a cuckolded suburban husband, Howard Marks (Arye Gross), takes brutal revenge on his wife with a pair of scissors — spectacularly interrupted by Anderton and his team by analyzing the prevision, then flying in for a last-minute rescue. But Minority Report finds an unusual twist when Anderton himself is soon implicated in a prevision for the cold-blooded killing of Leo Crow (Mike Binder), a man he’s never even met. As Anderton bitterly surmises when his former teammates close in on him, ‘Everybody runs.’ But will he be able to outrun his own destiny?

The ingenious previsions, a blur of expressionistic moments in time that congeal into hard evidence, were created by Imaginary Forces’ Kurt Mattila and Matt Checkowski. These dreamlike sequences reveal the technical mastery and artistic excellence of their creators, in collaboration with a director who seems to inspire the best in everyone he works with. Filmcritic.com recently shared its enthusiasm for Minority Report with Mattila and Checkowski and discussed the genesis and development of their craft, their rapport with Spielberg, and visualizing what’s inside the mind’s eye.

filmcritic.com: You must have had a very interesting time working on Minority Report. In a way, creating the previsions places you in the role of detective, dropping in fragments of information as clues for the audience.

Matt Checkowski: In a way, we were narrative detectives, because the most challenging part was figuring out ways to most effectively tell the story. We read the script and had our influences from Steven Spielberg, [Production Designer] Alex McDowell, and all the other art departments and filmmakers involved in making Minority Report. And then, of course, we also took into account things we were inspired by, such as paintings and sculptures. But yes, our initial task was a lot like detective work, figuring out what clues, what points of reference we could use to inform this prevision language.

Kurt Mattila: Yeah, because it wasn’t just seeing the future in these visions. It was also analyzing the future. We got the opportunity to create the crime scene and then figure out how to successfully foreshadow later events in the film with those visions.

What sparked your imagination when you first read the script?

KM: It’s funny. We actually read the short story [by Philip K. Dick] a few years back and said to ourselves, ‘This would make a great movie!’ Lo and behold, now there’s this huge production. The changes were pretty interesting. In the short story, the Pre-Cogs would basically sit around in a room and mutter like idiot savants, then the police would get an IBM punch-card describing who gets killed and who does the killing.

The big leap in the movie is our having these Pre-Cog visions that allow you to see inside their minds. By visualizing it that way, we get to experience what they experience. And our first response to reading that in the script was, ‘Oh, wow! This is cool!’ Those prevision sequences fall into every major plot point of the movie, so we felt a sense of tremendous pressure to get them right. They needed to feel recorded in the mind’s eye, not by the movie camera. They had to be a believable visual translation of human memory.

But how do you capture that? What determines what memory looks like?

KM: Well, that’s exactly it — what goes through your head? Part of our research was recalling events or dreams or thoughts we’ve had, concentrating on what that felt like.

MC: One of the first pieces of feedback we got from Steven was, ‘You don’t dream or think in cuts.’ We took that kernel of an idea and shot some footage on our own, independently. That being done, we then presented several ideas to Steven as options. A simple way to think about it was maybe treating them as RGB — if there’s three points of view in a scene maybe one’s red, one’s blue, and one’s green. That was one of our stepping stones. After that, we wondered how we could make this a little more conceptual, or push it into a direction that feels more unique. Our language is a culmination of many things that we looked at, from painting to fashion photography to architecture. Previsions are as much about spaces as they are flat images.

What sort of conversations would you have with Steven Spielberg and Director of Photography Janusz Kaminski about filming the previsions?

KM: The discussions started with Matt and I when we made those experimental short films of what the visions might look like. If you want to distort the perspective so it doesn’t feel like a movie scene, where do you put the camera where it becomes a passive point-of-view observer? As I said earlier, it’s about what’s happening in someone’s head rather than what we’re normally used to seeing in the language of cinema.

To get the fragmented look of some of these previsions, we needed to shoot several versions of the same scene, slightly adjusting what’s going on-because no three witnesses remember something exactly the same way. In an early scene where a husband is murdering his wife, we’d do a full on version with all the set dressing, all the props, and the whole nine yards. Then we would shoot again, but this time he wouldn’t have the scissors in his hand or there’d be no curtains behind him, because one of the Pre-Cogs didn’t remember that or focus upon that detail. We would shoot all sorts of different passes and combine them in post-production.

MC: Steven and Janusz gave us a lot of room in the beginning. They said, ‘OK, guys. Here’s what we’re thinking for the previsions. Let us know what you think.’ We’d come back with different sketches and ideas, saying they could operate this way or that way. We talked with them about how to fit the previsions into the movie’s structure. Much of our conceptual work was done beforehand but our process and the language of these visions evolved as the movie went on.

Once you had the raw material that had been shot, what was your process?

MC: Minority Report was unique for us. Normally we have a fairly linear way of working on projects. We do an offline sketch, get that approved by the client after a couple different versions, then we go online and take it into an Inferno or Flame where we can do the design or visual treatment work. Our process was different with Steven because we were so comfortable with what the previsions meant to us and to him.

We would take the footage, bring it back to Imaginary Forces, do some offline edits responding to how the script lays out the story and what clues the prevision has to communicate, then we would take it into the Inferno where we would turn multiple shots into one seamless, fluid long take. There were a lot of overlapping layers. We would add a visual treatment, we would un-develop the prevision, then we would bring it back into the AVID and cut it a little bit more.

KM: Yeah, it was totally a new way of working for us because usually at Imaginary Forces we do a lot of title sequences, or if we shoot and create commercials we conceptualize, cut the thing, then online it. But Minority Report involved editing and treating footage then bringi
ng it back, so it fused both processes of designing and editing at the same time.

How did you separate the different previsions from each other, making them specific to each murder?

KM: We came up with a language for them that could be affected by time. For instance, one of the murders is a crime of passion and happens a lot sooner in real time when we start the movie. The police only have maybe 10 minutes to solve this thing. It’s a bit clearer and the fragmentation is less-because this is an event that is happening closer in time. For another murder, Tom Cruise has around 36 hours to figure it out before that one happens. So we were able to play with the idea that it’s almost a live Polaroid, where not all of the imagery is fully developed yet. They really have to work with it to determine what’s actually going to happen. That material is distorted and underdeveloped because it happens further on in the future.

MC: We had the script as a reference, but the prevision sequences were really about communicating the emotion of a scene, and how to visualize that emotion. The first murder feels very gripping, violent, and passionate. The second murder is more analytical. There’s more a sense of walking through every detail.

What was your first impression of Steven Spielberg?

MC: I think the most impressive thing for us was really how high he sets the bar creatively, narratively, story-wise. Every element of the movie is the highest possible quality from the people that he works with. We saw that as an excellent challenge for us, something to live up to. He was constantly pushing us every day to put in the best, to meet the standards of all the other elements in the film.

KM: When we first showed our short film experiments to Steven, we had been up for hours on end-we hadn’t slept in days. But halfway through the presentation, we realized, ‘Oh my God, he’s making eye contact with us and listening to every single word we’re saying. I hope we’re making sense right now!’ (laughs)

But it was amazing to see how collaborative he was. During actual production, we thought he might be this guy at the top who was very removed from the process; staying in a room a million miles away while everyone else is doing their thing. That’s absolutely not the case. His sleeves were rolled up, he’s right in there shooting, and he’s very receptive to ideas. He doesn’t have this big ego where unless he comes up with the plan, he’s not going to do it. He’s very interested in hearing other people’s thoughts and incorporating those he feels are appropriate to the film.

How much access did you have to some of the other elements of the film, like the dailies? Did you have a chance to see anything while working on the previsions?

MC: Yeah, we were involved in pre-production and were also on location with the crew both in Los Angeles and in Washington, D.C. While in L.A., we would go through dailies with Janusz under very specific circumstances. Both of us felt very present on set. Then we would take the prevision footage back to Imaginary Forces and work on it, then present a mock-up or mini-vignette of what we saw for this prevision scene as a point of reference.

KM: And then that point of reference would help their process too on set. We would conceive what the murder scene would look like, then before they actually shot Anderton analyzing that prevision we would create a full package of it for them. We wanted to give them a template to what these visions are going to look like. Tom Cruise was looking at a blank screen while they’re shooting, so they had to know about highlighting certain clues, where those clues are, and how he’s going to find them.

I was wondering if you think musically, since each prevision has its own sense of rhythm. They flow like music.

KM: Absolutely, and you’re right on the money. Because we’re dealing with such an abstract way of storytelling, we needed to make them feel dreamlike. We couldn’t rely on normal, traditional cinematic scene structure and dialogue to guide us through, so for the bed of each prevision we would find a piece of music, lay it down, and use that to create the rhythm of the scene. Actually, in the analytical scenes, we helped figure out what Anderton would be listening to. As we were here at the office editing the scenes, sifting through all the dailies, we were playing the exact same music that he was, which was a Schubert symphony. It was weird to see art imitating life at that point.

MC: I think it comes right back to your initial question with us being detectives. At the end of the day, we found ourselves standing in front of our Avid or Inferno doing the same things Anderton was doing, simply because we were so completely possessed by the prevision mentality.

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