At a time when major films regularly cost $250m plus, Gareth Edwards made The Creator for just $80m. Here’s how it could usher in a new era of filmmaking.
What do you think the following movies have in common:
Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World: The Fallen Kingdom, Avatar: The Way Of Water, Avengers: Age Of Ultron.
The answer: they’re all examples of films that cost at least $350 million to make according to information available on the web. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is thought to be the most expensive film of all time, with an estimated budget of around $447 million.
Making big-screen spectacles has always been expensive, but the sums involved in making science fiction or superhero movies appears to have exploded since the turn of the millennium, with budgets soaring past the $200 million mark since the likes of Superman Returns in the early 2000s.
The Creator, by contrast, is a major film that cost just $80 million to make. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know that what director Gareth Edwards managed to achieve on that budget is quite astonishing: we’re talking huge, explosive set-pieces; a futuristic plot that requires some form of effects shot in almost every scene, whether it’s the addition of gigantic sci-fi vehicles or creating the illusion that actors like Ken Watanabe and Madeleine Yuna Voyles are androids with the backs of their heads missing.
It’s no exaggeration to say that The Creator looks far more expensive, and detailed, than something like Thor: Love And Thunder – a film which cost a reported $250 million to make. This is no slight on that Marvel film – I actually quite enjoyed it – but much of it looks very glaringly like it was shot against a green screen. Love And Thunder was also singled out for some of its iffy special effects when it was first released – some shots were even reworked (though not necessarily for the better) in time for its appearance on Disney+.
This begs another question: how the hell did Gareth Edwards make The Creator for less than a fifth of the cost of Star Wars: The Force Awakens? How did he make such a stunning-looking film for a third of Love And Thunder’s budget, and why does it look so good?
Thanks to Edwards’ interviews on the film’s promotional trail, we have a few answers.
The Creator was almost entirely shot in real-life locations around Thailand, the Himalayas, Tokyo, and other places in South East Asia. This not only makes the film feel far more gritty and real than a movie filmed on a sterile soundstage, but it also saved the production money. In an interview with Letterboxd, Edwards put it this way: a single set can cost somewhere around $200,000 to build. But if you look around for real-world locations, and dress them (either physically or digitally) to fit your story, you can save a fortune. This is exactly what Edwards and his team did for much of The Creator, with many scenes using real-world locations – like a particle accelerator lab in Thailand – to stand in for, say, an underground base. Of course, dragging huge amounts of expensive equipment and crew around 80 different locations thousands of miles away from Hollywood can cost a lot of money as well. Which leads me to the next point…
A lean crew
Edwards has said that he used a comparatively tiny crew of around four or six personnel to shoot The Creator. By keeping his crew small in number – in behind the scenes footage, Edwards himself can be seen operating the camera in multiple sequences – the production could move from location more quickly and cheaply. And speaking of cheap…
In an interview with Screen Rant, Edwards revealed that The Creator was shot with the kinds of digital cameras you could theoretically buy from a regular retailer – specifically, the Sony FX3, which retails for about £4,000. While he presumably used some high-end lenses to get a cinematic look, the use of light, affordable cameras also helped keep costs down compared to shooting on film (in particular the expensive, ungainly and expensive IMAX).
“The difference between the top digital cine camera you can buy and the FX3 is tiny,” Edwards said.
Digital cameras are also excellent at shooting night scenes – of which there are many in The Creator – and are sensitive to pick out details even by the light of the moon. (Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who shot much of Killers Of The Flower Moon on traditional film, still reverted to digital cameras for his night sequences.)
An agile approach to lighting
The sensitivity of those digital cameras, and Edwards’ desire to give the film a naturalistic, almost documentary look, also fed into the lighting. Rather than spend time and budget on complex lighting rigs that would need to be adjusted for each shot, Edwards instead had his best boy, Nancie Kang, hold what amounted to an LED light on the end of a stick. This could then be moved around by hand and positioned as the scene required; a great deal of The Creator was shot using handheld cameras, and so the photographer and the person holding the light could move around each other, nimbly finding the best angle for the scene and the best-looking illumination.
“We were re-lighting in real time,” Edwards said in his Screen Rant interview. “Normally that sort of [set-up] would take us half an hour. “It liberated us completely, and I’m never going to go back, to be honest.”
Efficient use of CGI
Edwards made his name globally with his debut feature, Monsters, which was shot on a tiny budget – Edwards even saved money by doing the visual effects himself. His previous work on BBC productions, like a documentary about Attila the Hun, gave him a useful grounding in VFX work, and how to achieve results using visual effects software and a bit of imagination. Although The Creator’s effects work was done by ILM – which by itself explains why they look so stunning – Edwards’ background meant that he could plan his effects shots well in advance, and compose his shots to accommodate VFX without breaking the bank.
For one battle sequence, he and his team borrowed an army helicopter, which they could fly around in front of the camera to create the physical effects of a gigantic machine hovering above the ground – whips of dust, shaking trees, awestruck reactions from the cast, and so forth. It was then a relatively affordable task to overlay the helicopter with a more futuristic, CGI vehicle for the final shot.
As Edwards put it in an interview with Letterboxd, “Having a visual effects background, you can go, ‘That’s really hard to do in a computer. It’s way easier to go here and shoot this.’ And [conversely], someone can go, ‘Oh, we’ve got to go here and do that.’ [And I can say], ‘No, we don’t have to do any of that. We can stick that in the computer really easily.’ So I hope one thing we gained was an efficiency of stuff we’re doing in front of the camera versus stuff we’re leaving to visual effects.”
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As audiences become increasingly fragmented between those who love the experience of going to the cinema and those who’d prefer to watch a movie at home, the old Hollywood model of spending hundreds of millions in the hope of packing out multiplexes is beginning to look increasingly unsustainable. If a movie costs north of $300 million to make, it’s going to need to make well over $1 billion to turn a profit.
The Creator, meanwhile, offers an alternate route: one that involves planning and thought, certainly, but is more nimble, affordable and efficient. The Creator’s visual achievements speak for themselves, and it’s likely to be used as a case study by other filmmakers and studios for many years to come.
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