Asteroid City is a film that’s not so much about extraterrestrial contact in a desert town as it is about humanity’s deep desire for universal meaning — and the connection between the actor and their character.
Moreover, one can take away how the art of theatrical storytelling is a collective effort that cannot be solely claimed by one lone narcissist, like the romanticized writer, Conrad Earp (Ed Norton). From the Host (Bryan Cranston) to playwright Conrad Earp to the director Schubert Green (Adrien Brody) and to each character performed by a star-studded ensemble, each has a hand in defining the story and its larger meaning.
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This latest installment into Wes Anderson’s repertoire explores its meaning within a Russian Doll of plots from the writer to the play to the TV broadcast filming the play, only to extract the truth through its layers of character intervention and exploration.
In this way, the film is about infinity, both inside and out. The film props open a window into the creative process where inspiration is sought as a means to acknowledge the connection between the artist and their work.
Somewhere between the third and fourth walls lies the very nature of imagination and how it ultimately plays into the performance and meaning of a theatrical work of art.
“You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep!”
Follow along as we plunge into the imagination of Wes Anderson, highlighting his team of collaborators while learning what inspired them, and how they constructed the worlds that fall in a story within a story…
This is The Look of Asteroid City.
- Tech Specs
- The World
- Production Design
- Costume Design
- Stop-Motion Animation
✰ ASTROID CITY TECH SPECS ✰
- Runtime: 1 hour 45 minutes (105 minutes)
- Aspect Ratio:
- 1.37: 1 (some scenes)
- 2.39: 1 (theatrical ratio)
- Arricam LT, Cooke S4 and Zeiss Master Anamorphic Lenses
- Arricam ST, Cooke S4 and Zeiss Master Anamorphic Lenses
- Company 3, London, UK (digital intermediate)
- FotoKem Laboratory, Burbank (CA), USA (film processing)
- Hiventy, Malakoff, France (film processing)
- Negative Format: 35 mm (Kodak Vision3 200T 5213, Eastman Double-X 5222)
- Cinematographic Process:
- Digital Intermediate (4K, master format)
- Master Scope (anamorphic, source format)
- Super 35 (source format, some scenes)
- Printed Film Format: D-Cinema
✰ THE WORLD OF ASTEROID CITY ✰
Set in a 1950s desert town somewhere between California and Arizona, Asteroid City takes place in the post-WWII Atomic Era when science fiction and the pursuit of knowledge and technology captured the public imagination; some would say, it served in a vacuum of crumbling dogmas. Even though humankind still looks to the sky for answers, the intervention of intelligent alien life hardly imparts any peace of mind. In the world of Asteroid City, humanity is met with silence. Communication is still only one-sided and the interstellar visitors don’t seem in the slightest bit interested to make direct contact.
The majority of the ‘50s took place under the presidency of retired 5-Star General of the Army and Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Otherwise, known to his friends as “Ike.” Ike stood before a new world superpower with its attention turned optimistically toward the possibility of infinite new worlds, while still silently contending with the aftermath of the one they left behind after the war.
The idea of Manifest Destiny is deeply entrenched in the psychology of America as it spread west until it reached the Pacific. Now, with its influence spread across the globe, our imagination is captured by the stars above, wondering and entertaining the possibility of new worlds.
The story of stargazing teenage geniuses is right out of a Karen Russell anthology and reminiscent of short stories like, “The Star-Gazer’s Log of Summer-Time Crime.” Like Russell, Anderson constructs almost a fable-like setting of Asteroid Day, commemorating an ancient meteorite crash site.
Asteroid City is a film best described as “a Russian doll,” a multi-layered story, comprised of three unique plots that vary significantly on the scale between reality and fiction. In other words, it’s an embedded narrative that follows a writer, his play, and a teleplay, the titular town of “Asteroid City.”
But how did the auteur director create contrast between these separate plots?
Wes Anderson is one of few directors with a unique, globally trademarked style that’s undeniably all his own. His greater sensibilities toward themes and tropes, best conveyed essentially through a theatrical, literary style, are captured with the same air of fuzzy self-awareness you observe while watching a play. When a filmmaker wants their look for a project to feel as if it’s filmed in some plush playhouse in Connecticut, or perhaps out of the imagination of a particularly gifted yet severely introverted outcast adolescent — all in pastel, of course — they will unwittingly describe this look as “Wes Anderson.”
The Golden Era
In an interview with IndieWire, Anderson expressed how he was always captivated by the aura and mystique of a backstage story and the theater as a whole. What particularly struck Anderson about directors like Elia Kazan was how they worked with a new form of acting both on stage and on film. Anderson considers the time as a bygone era that was “the most cinematic ever.”
Even the structure of Asteroid City harkens back to the presentation of old Hollywood. With the opening of credits, title cards with act and scene numbers, and an intermission to break up both halves of the film. This approach to structure is nothing new for Anderson whose other works benefit from this theatrical presentation.
The look of Asteroid City is couched in an uncanny desert town characterized by a nearby crater from a meteorite. While it also serves as a fitting spot to sit back with a strawberry daiquiri in hand and watch a marvelous display of mushroom clouds from nearby nuclear tests. Anderson had a “Euro take” on the American West and was inspired by the likes of Wim Wenders and his Berlin point of view.
Below are photographs from Wim Wender’s collection, Written in the West.
✰ PRODUCTION DESIGN ✰
Let’s next explore the film’s production design. First off, there’s a theatrical play with a red, sunbaked color palette in Anderson’s signature pastel that beautifully complements the aqua and turquoise features of the scenery.
While on top of that is the behind-the-scenes making of the play in classic, inky black and white. You can practically choke on the cigarette smoke.
An additional layer includes a host with the trappings of Rod Serling that informs the audience that they are in fact watching a TV broadcast of a play that doesn’t actually exist.
Southwest color palette in Asteroid City, shot by DP Robert Yeoman. Photo courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features
Northeast color palette in Asteroid City, shot by DP Robert Yeoman. Photo courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features
The filmmakers develop the color palette after Anderson presents his narrative’s main ideas. During prep, they shoot tests on different color walls with various swatches of cloth.
|“To get the right hue for the purple jacket used in The Grand Budapest Hotel, we shot different shades of purple against a pink wall in different lights to see how the colors would work on film. Then Wes makes the decision about what kind of purple or pink we are going to use.”
—Robert D. Yeoman
In a work that is set in the 1950s United States, Anderson’s longtime production designer Adam Stockhausen (since 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom) brings together both east coast and west — the frontier desert town in the southwest and an urban news broadcast studio in the east.
|“The light is very warm and the innate redness is magnified by the setting sun. From the start, Wes was very clear about the color of the ground and rocks. Then we start adding that color to the sketches and seeing how the white of the luncheonette and motel bounced off that.”
—Adam Stockhausen, Focus Features
Stockhausen started as he does on any other project, asking questions to determine the needs. For example, is it being filmed on a stage or on location? In the case of Asteroid City, it’s a fictional town that doesn’t exist on the map. This gives them some flexibility on where they film. Then, there are big-picture questions. How much of the set needs to be constructed? In their case, all of it.
CLASSIC DESIGN INSPIRATIONS
Another reason for multiple viewings is to soak in the underlying themes and fully appreciate the production design from the little bridge that leads nowhere to every cactus peppering the background. Visual influences for the look consisted of various references from Looney Tunes to Bad Day at Black Rock.
In fact, there were many classic references that helped set the tone and matched the feel of the project. The films of Billy Wilder, for one, were a huge point of reference. Stockhausen was struck by Kiss Me, Stupid, particularly its single stage with a gas station and painted backdrop of a town. “Something about that was exciting in terms of the artificiality of the world of Asteroid City,” Stockhausen tells Focus Features.
|“The Billy Wilder films Kiss Me, Stupid and especially Ace in the Hole in terms of the overall feeling of the place, the carnival coming to town. It Happened One Night was a big one in terms of the motel and the layout of that. Niagara was a big one, especially with the luncheonette at the cafe. But it starts to bleed away from cinema references and into photographic references, and we dig into each one of these structures and do huge background [research] into gas stations, roadside structures of all sorts, motor courts, motels, postcard collections of the American Southwest with really beautiful images and loads of mid-century color photography of Monument Valley.” —Adam Stockhausen
CONSTRUCTING THE TOWN OF ASTEROID CITY
Stockhausen’s impressive attention to detail stems from the fact that everything you see on screen was designed from scratch. “Everything was physically built and laid out” to give actors and crew “the sense of living in a real town,” says associate producer Ben Adler.
While the setting of the film is in the American southwest, the production took place in the town of Chinchón in Spain. So, the background you see that appears like it’s from a Looney Tunes cartoon (or a Spaghetti Western for that matter) was built from the ground up in a watermelon field.
Although, it wasn’t a stroll in the park for Jeremy Dawson and the locations team since that field you see was part of 137 different farms. This tends to be the case in Europe, Stockhausen explains to Filmmaker Magazine, “where the land has been divided and subdivided by generations into smaller and smaller parcels of lands until the point where you’ve got our little town, which was a few thousand feet.”
Incredible Attention to Detail
Rest assured that there were no shortcuts taken in the construction of the set. According to Stockhausen, it was all meticulously laid out in advance. “If we’re on the 40mm lens and we have 15 chairs in the luncheonette, then Midge is going to feel this far away. If we went to the 35mm lens and we only had 12 chairs, it would feel like this.”
And let’s just marvel for a moment at the vending machines stacked full of sandwiches, cocktails, and bullets.
One of the production designer’s regrets was assembling the crater in pieces and not building the gigantic crater into one set piece. As one set piece, it would have allowed them more mobility with the camera.
Stockhausen took all the forced perspective tricks that he normally would employ on a stage with backdrops of landscapes and inflated the scale outside. Due to the nature of the landscape, other than cacti there isn’t anything between the mountains and the characters.
|FORCED PERSPECTIVE: A photographic technique using space between subjects and objects to manipulate the viewer’s perception, creating an optical illusion.
The mountains themselves were very large miniatures constructed by Stockhausen and his team. Their buttes and mesas had to appear like the ones you would see in Monument Valley — 3,000 feet tall and two miles apart. So, Stockhausen and his team made their large miniature versions at 75 feet tall and 1,500 feet apart.
“For us,” says Stockhausen, “the experiment was trying to figure out that sweet spot where objects are far enough that our brains believe that they are truly huge, but not so far that we are just wasting money building bigger sets.”
3D MODELING IN PRE-PRODUCTION
During the pandemic, productions were forced to create alternate forms of collaborative techniques in order to continue work. For instance, Shane Hurlbut, ASC implemented the Insta360 into his scouting and prep process to streamline communication between department heads. Likewise, Adam Stockhausen leveraged 3D modeling software to virtually design the set and camera planning.
Stockhausen was over the moon with the results that the 3D modeling software brought to his process.
|“That was a big shift that we did a great deal more because of the nature of our prep during the lockdown,” he says, “but it worked out really well. And when we were moved out to the real site, it was actually incredibly satisfying to do the first move physically and have it actually line up with what you had planned virtually and have everything work.”
Are you interested in learning more about how 3D modeling software can improve your pre-production?
In his Cinematographer Essentials Series, DP Justin Jones demonstrates how he uses Cinema 4D in pre-production to ensure precise results in production. Join Filmmakers Academy today to access Jusin’s series!
✰ ASTEROID CITY CINEMATOGRAPHY ✰
The film was lensed by none other than director of photography Robert D. Yeoman, ASC in what appears sun-shiny Kodachrome. Yeoman tells Focus Features that they shot anamorphic color film in the desert.
The film was shot on the Arricam LT and Arricam ST with Cooke S4 and Zeiss Master Anamorphic Lenses. It’s a Wes Anderson flick, which means a planimetric composition with room-to-room tracking shots and whip pans that usually provide a comedic reveal or some kind of periscope effect.
Yeoman starts laying the visual groundwork for Asteroid City when location scouting. He and the other department heads are aided by an animatic. Yeoman describes it as “an animated cartoon of the movie” acted out entirely by the auteur director. Anderson started making animatics after Fantastic Mr. Fox. (Please let the animatic hit the internet!)
|“We used that cartoon to understand how the camera was going to move and how Wes planned to explore the town cinematically,” Yeoman says. “On location, we have lots of discussions about the space. I take measurements and walk about with a viewfinder to see how to arrange the very precise shots that Wes has imagined.”
Throughout pre-production, the animatics serve as their Bible. They used it to plot all the camera movement and lighting in advance. Yeoman claims this process improves their accuracy by the time they step on set. They might switch out a lens but overall they know exactly what they’re walking into.
This was incredibly important because timing is everything when blocking intricate scenes. So, Yeoman and Stockhausen had to collaborate to ensure the placement of buildings aligned with the blocking and dialogue. Yeoman says plainly, “If the dialogue takes place in a minute, we need to make that shot within a minute, not a minute 10.”
When the film opens, our eyes aren’t treated to the pastel color palette but to black and white imagery in a 1950s New York City broadcast studio at a square 1.37: 1 (4:3 Academy) aspect ratio.
When we switch to the world of Asteroid City, the aspect ratio opens to 2.39: 1 and we’re treated to technicolor as the camera pans 360 degrees in a dynamic single shot.
|“There’s a different kind of cinema that comes from the ‘50s besides the Kazan approach, which is big-picture Cinemascope. Suddenly there are these widescreen things that take up the whole landscape, these wide formats they invented to make movies bigger. I’m drawn to that, too.” —Wes Anderson
ASTEROID CITY LIGHTING
No stranger to a lo-fi approach, Anderson carried the concept to the film’s lighting, preferring the sun to be the dominant source. The director told Yeoman that he wanted all-natural lighting and no movie lights. Not only because the overwhelming sun is a primary feature of Asteroid City, but to keep the set as small and intimate as possible. According to Yeoman, Anderson likes to keep it to himself, the DP, a focus puller, second AC with a slate, a dolly grip, and a boom op. “In his dream world, he would have eight people making the entire movie.”
While in pre-production, Yeoman confirmed that he could use skylights for the interior scenes, comparing its effects to “the early days of cinema when they put a nice soft silk overhead and you shot the interiors with the overhead sun.”
So, production designer Adam Stockhausen built skylights into all of the buildings where they shot interiors. For example, in the luncheonette, the only thing between the sun and the actors is a soft piece of diffusion. “Wes loved that we didn’t use lights on the interiors,” recalls Yeoman. “He was thrilled.”
Embracing the Sun
Now you’re probably wondering how Yeoman dealt with the hard shadows from the overhead sun, especially while filming during summer. It wasn’t easy maintaining a consistent light. “With lights, you can fill in some of the face,” explains Yeoman. “But Wes was eager not to use lighting. We used large white bounce cards to put some light into people’s faces.”
At first, Yeoman wasn’t crazy about this approach but eventually came around to the harsh light, feeling as if it was almost a character. Films like Paris, Texas weren’t afraid to shoot at high noon, and even though it challenged the cinematographer, he learned to embrace it.
The gaffer would sometimes add light from underneath with a white card, as well. Then, later they tweaked the image a bit when they did the digital intermediate.
Lighting New York City Sequences
Of course, natural lighting wasn’t used for the black-and-white New York theater world. As previously noted, Elia Kazan was a primary inspiration so Yeoman and his team pre-lit it so they could just flick the studio lights on when the actors walked in.
Yeoman used this opportunity to create a contrast between the world of Asteroid City and New York. He leaned on expressionistic lighting techniques and also the neon and glitter of One from the Heart.
|“I love the idea of lights changing within a shot and coordinating those moves to the actors,” says Yeoman. “We do a lot of dimming, or a spotlight might come on someone, and it’s a very theatrical way of shooting.”
WES ANDERSON STYLE & CINEMATIC LANGUAGE
When we watch a Wes Anderson film, we have certain expectations. The composition must be symmetrical and with deep focus. The camera movements should be precise and every shot has a specific purpose. We want 90-degree pivots, swish pans, and plenty of dolly moves. Better yet, blend them all together into one crazy shot! Yeoman credits part of this precision to operating with one camera instead of two or three.
|“A lot of great directors have a distinct style because they believe there’s one place to put a camera and to tell a story, and that’s the place we’re going to commit to,” Yeoman tells MovieMaker. “Whereas other directors might be concerned about getting a lot of coverage and they want two or three cameras. And all of a sudden, the movies start to look alike with an over, single, two shot, whatever. I think that if people just concentrate on one camera, my opinion is you’ll end up with a little more interesting movie.”
On a Wes Anderson movie set, you will see crew members standing in for the actors, prepping long dolly moves and other blocking, setting marks, and working together as one big family. Many stars appear in Anderson’s films so one of the expectations from the director is to check any big egos at the door. As Yeoman puts it, “Everyone’s there because they want to be.”
BRECHTIAN DISTANCING EFFECT
Wes Anderson’s use of the Brechtian Distancing Effect in Asteroid City even outdoes his Best Picture-winning The Grand Budapest Hotel, creating an alienating distance from the audience to the character on screen.
|BRECHTIAN DISTANCING EFFECT: A technique used in theater and cinema that prevents the audience from losing itself completely in the narrative, instead making it a conscious and critical observer. —Global Shakespeares
And one can see why the actor Jones Hall (Schwartzman) playing Augie Steenbrook struggles with the meaning he is supposed to feel. Each character, and corresponding actor, contend with their own meaning and place in the play, and therefore, the universe.
After the mechanic (Matt Dillon) declares their car useless, Augie and his four kids find themselves effectively stranded at a stargazing convention in the remote, unfinished desert town of Asteroid City. Augie is forced to call his father-in-law Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks) who has no love for him, especially now that his daughter is dead and Augie is a widower.
Wes Anderson conveys this tense moment with dueling screens. Augie, confined in a small phonebooth, and Stanely, at his spacious, luxurious house.
FRAME WITHIN A FRAME
Augie and Midge’s white wooden residential shacks are next to one another and as they interact, they do so from the isolation of their windows. This frame-within-a-frame approach gives the impression that they are living, breathing portraits. They strike meaningful and evocative poses that are worthy of the work of art they portray on screen.
The movement of the camera is done using an intricate dolly system designed by key grip, Sanjay Sami. Sami has been part of Anderson’s troupe since The Darjeeling Limited in 2007. This allowed the filmmakers to not only dolly sideways but also dolly in and out.
|“He has dolly tracks that go back and forth and sideways that he can switch, like a train. Those tracks have to be tightly controlled because it has to be down to the millimeter. There’s a small crosshair on the camera and Wes can see when you didn’t make it. When you land, it has to be very precise, and it’s so fast you couldn’t use a Steadicam or a Technocrane.” —Robert D. Yeoman, IndieWire
Sanjay Sami behind the scenes of Asteroid City. Photo credit: Focus Features
It’s far from an easy endeavor and requires the three of them to pull it off. While Yeoman operates, Sami must simultaneously push the dolly and Vincent Scotet pulls focus. Together they can rack focus on the characters both in the foreground and background.
✰ COSTUME DESIGN ✰
|“With a population of only 87, it might be the best-dressed place per capita in the world, Milena Canonero’s costumes serve as a ready-to-wear fast fashion line that would sell out overnight if it ever hit shelves.” —The Film Stage
The internet is a-buzz with how well-dressed the entire cast was from Conrad Earp’s jacket covered with cowboy illustrations to a geeky group of outcasts that appear as if they walked off a photo shoot for a high fashion clothing line. In fact, Earp’s was an original design that costume designer Milena Canonero insists is perhaps even more charming in color.
After reading the script, the fashionista dives into the research. “I do all sorts of research — and I do love research,” she remarks. “Many of the designs come from the artistic desire to bring to the director something new and fresh.” Some of the inspiration for the costuming was taken from iconic images, from Kim Novak to Marlon Brando.
|When talking about his days as a young artist, Anderson says, “The thing at the center of it for us — if you kind of break it down — is Elia Kazan. We were so interested in Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and the world of these new voices in the movies of the ‘50s. It was so resonant. When I think about it now, how odd it is that while we loved the movies of the ’70s — we had all our guys from that period — the ’50s was really at the center of it for us. As much as it was about Kazan, it was also about the repercussions of Marlon Brando walking onto the stage.”
The Wardrobe Process
Canonero sourced the costumes in mainly two ways. She searches for and buys period clothing when possible — at times even from a collector. Although, she is not unfamiliar with creating similar fabrics. “In this movie,” says Canonero, “I designed various original patterns to be hand-painted by textile artists.”
Since the sets and costumes are carefully linked, Canonero coordinated quite a bit with production designer Adam Stockhausen. Although, there’s far more than just their surroundings the characters contend with. In fact, the psychology of the characters can be found in the film’s costume design.
Take Augie Steenbeck. He’s a war photographer with shrapnel lodged in the back of his head and wears a smart-looking safari outfit and wields a vintage Muller Schmid Swiss Mountain Camera with a 50mm f/2 Combat Lens. The Casual Photophile did some digging and found that the fictional camera is a Kiev 4M with probably a Jupiter 8a lens.
The Psychology Behind the Fabric
When writing the script, Wes Anderson told co-writer Roman Coppola that these characters, especially the older generation, suffered PTSD from the worst war in human history. And they inflict that PTSD on the next generation which will result in the Hippy movement and Woodstock.
You probably noticed the pistol tucked away in Stanley Zak’s (Tom Hanks) sweater wrapped around his waist like some country club outlaw. Or how Augie’s outfit is fitting for a child’s idea of what a photographer might wear. The pistols the actors wear may symbolize the desire for both physical and emotional protection or a yearning to return to a time of America’s frontier past. Or both.
However, this melancholy isn’t just reserved for those on the front lines. Midge Campbell laments her volatile history with men from her father, brothers, uncles, and ex-husband. She displays this deep anguish within her character with a painted-on black eye. For that, she is resigned to admitting that she isn’t the best mother to her children.
The nostalgia impressed upon the hair and makeup was thanks to Julie Dartnell. It’s thanks to her tireless work that the cast is made timeless in classy Golden Age charm.
✰ STOP-MOTION ANIMATION ✰
With Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs, Anderson proved that stop-motion animation can be cinematic. For a medium where every movement and nuance is crafted meticulously by the artist, one can see how this could appeal to a director of Anderson’s proclivities.
But mixing elements of animation with live action is an interesting choice and one that seems to fascinate the director. After all, it’s that spark that an actor brings with them to live action that isn’t necessarily captured in stop-motion. At least, not in the same way. And it’s something about the nature of that creative ‘spark’ that Anderson cannot help but illustrate in Asteroid City.
The director’s love of stop-motion animation is exhibited from the spacecraft to the roadrunner, setting a youthful tone as we enter the Junior Stargazer Convention on Asteroid Day. For the animated elements of Asteroid City, the visionary director collaborated once again with puppet maker Andy Gent. Altogether they worked for two years on the project.
The lanky alien who descends upon the ensemble of characters amidst a viewing of the astronomical ellipses is one of their stop-motion creations. It appears as if it was peeled off the pages of a children’s storybook.
Model Maker Simon Weisse on the set of Asteroid City
Wes Anderson had a very specific look in mind for the alien and employed the assistance of illustrator Victor Georgiev to convey his vision.
The images below are part of the collection “Asteroid City, The Alien 2021.”
In its caption on artstation.com, it reads that this 3D model was sculpted from Jeff Goldblum’s body scan. The practical costume was built by Coulier Creatures Fx.
✰ WATCH ASTEROID CITY ✰
Released in the middle of an industrywide writer’s strike, Asteroid City even examines themes that parallel concerns that artists today warn about, such as the all-too-willing application of AI technology into moviemaking. AI is great for streamlining tedious work and cutting costs, but could AI replace human writers and performers?
Here are our two cents. AI could never replace the spontaneity of human performance or understand the impulsive act of, say, burning one’s hand. Needless to say, the very nature of art is the act of human expression. It requires experiences within the world. And at its best, the art created by AI would only ever be a hollow shell based on original work created by humans. And one thing is certain, there’s no AI algorithm that could ever create the film that is Asteroid City.
|“It has something to do with actors and this strange thing that they do,” Anderson says to AP News of his new film. “What does it mean when you give a performance? If somebody has probably written something and then you study it and learn and you have an interpretation, but essentially you take yourself and put it in the movie. And then you take a bunch of people taking themselves and putting themselves in the movie. They have their faces and their voices, and they’re more complex than anything than even the AI is going to come up with. The AI has to know them to invent them. They do all these emotional things that are usually a mystery to me. I usually stand back and watch and it’s always quite moving.”
Asteroid City is currently playing in theaters. After that, it will be available on your friendly neighborhood streaming service.
- Focus Features
- Filmmaker Magazine