by Julia, Nerds and Beyond
David Heinz is a director, writer, editor, and visual effects editor best know for his work on the Planet of the Apes franchise, The Jungle Book, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and American Folk, among many other projects. Heinz’s latest film is The Call of the Wild, which is based on the classic Jack London novel that follows Buck, a dog who must learn to survive in the wilderness when he is uprooted from his comfortable life. Heinz served as the editor of the film and worked alongside director Chris Sanders. Nerds and Beyond talked with Heinz about The Call of the Wild, the challenges of creating an entirely CG character, and much more!
Nerds and Beyond: How did you get involved with The Call of the Wild?
Heinz: I first became aware that they were making a The Call of the Wild movie because of the executive producer, a guy named Ryan Stafford, who’s a great guy. I’ve worked with him a few times, most recently on the last two Planet of the Apes movies. So early on they were looking for some editorial help and Ryan called me and that’s how I first became aware of it, before I even had a chance to talk to Chris Sanders [the director]. Chris had just come onto the project at that point. So I was very excited about that.
Nerds and Beyond: And that must have been a different experience working with Chris, because he’s mostly known for his fully animated work, like How To Train Your Dragon and Lilo and Stitch. But this is the first live-action film he’s directed. So what was that collaboration like?
Heinz: It’s been great. Honestly, I’ve been on the movie for over two years, if you can believe that. We did a lot of prep work and a lot of planning before they went and shot any of the movie. Actually, we were working with Chris and Ryan and a pretty small team on it for almost a year before they went and filmed the movie. And to answer your question about Chris, he’s such a great storyteller. Chris is one of the writers of the original Lion King movie. So I think that plus his animation background made him really the perfect guy to direct this movie because the story we’re telling is through the dog. The classic book is through the eyes of Buck the dog, and the way they made this movie is by creating a fully CG main character [Buck]. So the only way to do that was create this kind of strange, interesting hybrid of live action and animation, which has never quite been done exactly this way before. But I think having someone at the helm like Chris who has so much animation background … I don’t think anyone else could have directed this movie other than Chris Sanders.
Nerds and Beyond: So what were some of the challenges involved with putting Buck with these actors like Harrison Ford, who obviously is very iconic for most moviegoers, and having him stand out and having him be real enough that the audience falls in love with him the same way?
Heinz: That’s the big challenge in the film. I had worked on a couple of the Planet of the Apes movies, and those films are motion captures. So they get these great actors like Andy Serkis or Terry Notary and they put them in a motion capture suit. And that performance really becomes the performance of the apes. So all along as you’re editing a movie like that, you have the performance from Andy Serkis or one of those great motion capture actors to edit with. And also similarly, I worked on The Jungle Book and what we had was the voices of the actors, so they voiced Bill Murray and all these other great actors ahead of time. So we were working with the audio there. But on this movie, there was none of that.
We did have a, if you can imagine, [laughs] I know it’s probably tough to imagine, but we had a live action performer on set with Harrison Ford and with all the other actors. But because because a human’s movements and a dog’s movements are so vastly different, we didn’t actually capture that performance, if that makes sense. So that live action performer, which was primarily Terry Notary, who is a terrific actor, that performance was really, in a way, just sort of reference for the other actors. So Harrison Ford was talking to someone. He wasn’t talking to an empty screen. And they knew where to put the camera. They knew how to frame the shots because at least there was somebody there for reference.
Nerds and Beyond: You mentioned before you worked on the film for almost a year before they even shot anything. For someone who’s not as familiar with editing in that sort of way, what were you doing for that year? What is the process like in creating that character?
Heinz: We did a lot of what’s called “pre-vis” [pre-visualization], which is just a way of creating a visual, moving storyboard of the film. It used to be really kind of rudimentary animation, but now with all these video game engines they’re able to do this “pre-vis” that looks pretty realistic. So we were creating “pre-vis” for basically the entire film. And the reason being is, like I said, I mean the main character who, it’s very much his story, we’re telling the story through his eyes. That’s a fully CG character. So if we were to go onto set and not have a pretty meticulous plan going into it, we would be flying blind. Because at least when you have actors there and everybody’s on set, you’re reacting to what they’re doing. You’re able to direct them and so forth. In this film, if we were just figuring it out on the day, I don’t think there would’ve been any way to do it.
So it was a great experience because as an editor, I usually don’t start on the movie until they’re filming and sometimes after the filming. And so this was totally different in that I was able to, from a very, very early stage in the process, early drafts of the script, I was able to help Chris visualize how he might put this together. At first we would assemble storyboards that Chris was drawing, and we had some other great storyboard artists on early as well. And from that it would move to this sort of “pre-vis.” And from there, I’m just doing my job as if it’s regular footage. I’m talking about, what’s the point of each scene? How are we going to craft this specific moment? Do we need a different shot here? Is there additional coverage we might want to think about? How are we transitioning in and out of things? And what was great about that year long process, not just not just getting to know Chris (and working with him was really the highlight of it), but we were able to get a version of the film. It was a little cartoonish and did not at all look like what the finished film would be, but we were able to have kind of a version of the film that we could screen for people. And so as we were going out to cast [the film] and talking to Harrison Ford, we had this pretty realized version of the movie that we could show to anybody who might come aboard. So that was hugely helpful. It’s helpful to have something to show them and say, “no, this is what we’re thinking.” A lot of those scenes in the movie ended up almost shot for shot like a lot of that original “pre-vis” we did.
Nerds and Beyond: Actually, that leads me into another question I had. I think a lot of people are familiar with the idea of an editor as somebody who just puts the film together, taking these different shots and making them look like the movie that we are familiar with. But so much of it’s shaping the story as well. And I don’t think people realize that. So what is the role of the editor in crafting the story?
David Heinz: A lot of people refer to the editor as the last writer on the film, and I do think that’s apt. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. I mean, you can go out and shoot a film and do as much meticulous planning as you can possibly do. And we did a lot of it on this movie. When you go out and film something, it always becomes something different, and you might come back with footage that is speaking to you in a different way. It’s telling a slightly different story maybe than you originally set out. And it’s my job to be kind of a sounding board for Chris and say, “listen, I know this is what you’re going for. Here is actually what I think we have.” It’s better in some ways, but it’s different. And we’re constantly responding to that, and we’re screening it for audiences, and we’re getting feedback from the producers and the executives, and we’re always responding to that and thinking about what we can do with the footage we have and what footage we might need to create.
I mean, that was a really interesting part of this process, too, is that there are large parts of the film, and I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to spoil it, but there are parts of the film that are entirely CG, meaning there are sections of the film where we don’t have any live action photography. And so a lot of that stuff was written and rewritten to a certain extent as we were putting the movie together. Michael Green’s the writer of the film, by all means, he’s a terrific writer. Oscar nominated writer, he’s great. He wrote an amazing script, but you’re always kind of shaping and changing things as the movie evolves and as it becomes something else and as you show it to audiences and get certain feedback. So that’s kind of what I do. And I have to say, I was really surprised because often on these movies you do test screenings with audiences. And I was really nervous because we had to test screen this movie before we had any finished visual effects shots. So we were sometimes screening for audiences with storyboards in there or really kind of a cartoonish, a placeholder animation of the dog or something like that. And I was really encouraged and kind of amazed by the fact that every audience we showed the movie to along the way totally responded to it, totally got into it right away. I was pretty encouraged by that, that the story just grabbed people enough that they could see past the kind of work-in-progress nature of it all.
Nerds and Beyond: It’s a real testament to the story, especially since audiences are used to seeing a finished product. If you’re sitting in a theater and someone is showing you the film and saying “this is sort of what it’s going to look like, but you know, bear with us,” the fact that you’re hanging in there and watching it and enjoying it, that’s huge.
Heinz: [laughs] I know, it made me want to stand up in front of the theater and try to explain everything. Like, “this is what it’ll look like. I promise it’s going to be great!”
Nerds and Beyond: You have worked on some really heavy effects driven projects. You mentioned Planet of the Apes and The Jungle Book, but you’ve also edited and directed films like American Folk, which is pretty much the complete opposite in terms of how you shot it. What are the similarities in how you approach these very different projects and what are the differences?
Heinz: They’re different in most every way in terms of approach and process. But there is no difference in the storytelling. I mean, at the end of the day, people want to go to see a movie because they want to see a great story. Some people may be more interested in the process and how we got there than others, but a lot of people just don’t care. They just want to see a movie and be entertained by it or be moved by it. And so the basis for what we do never changes. We’re trying to tell the best story possible, and on some films you have different tools available to do that.
But a lot of people may have made a big thing out of this film as “Oh, this is Chris’ first live action movie” and all this stuff. Chris is a great filmmaker and telling a great story is not native to one format or another. Or, you know, we made a tiny little road trip movie [American Folk]. I still had to edit that together so it made a cohesive story and made sense. And whether or not I have a bunch of visual effects shots with CG characters in them or it’s simple shot of a human being, it’s all the same. It all works the same. And I think the big challenge for me on this film, and we touched on it earlier, was: how do you get people to connect to this CG character who never speaks? And to me that’s all visual storytelling. There’s no way to tell Buck’s story without carefully crafting each moment so that you know what the dog is thinking and feeling in any given scene or any given sequence. So all of the experience I have in doing that on other films and other formats kind of lent itself to the exact same thing and what we were doing here.
Nerds and Beyond: When did you know you wanted to work in film and how did you get started?
Heinz: I’ve been watching movies my whole life, which is so funny because one of the first movies I can remember watching was Raiders of the Lost Ark. Raiders of the Lost Ark was probably one of the first movies I ever saw, which starred Mr. Harrison Ford, of course. So it was amazing to me that it came full circle. I remember watching Back to the Future. Those kinds of movies were huge to me when I was young, and I was always playing around with my dad’s Super 8 camera and then he got a video camera. So I was trying to convince my friends to shoot movies in the backyard. Everyone was less serious about it than I was. So frustrating, [laughs] you know, because I would spend all this time writing some script or something, and I would just think it’s the greatest thing ever and I’d want to get it right. And I’d say, “Hey, you guys want to make a movie?” And then after 15 minutes, everyone’s bored except for me. And I’m just dragging people around trying to finish it.
To me there was a moment where I realized I might be able to do it for a living. And that moment came when I watched a movie called Bottle Rocket, which was Wes Anderson’s first movie. I loved that movie so much. I still do, but there was something about it, there was a sense of humor in it that I had never seen on film before. It spoke to me so personally that I actually got really interested in “who are these guys and how did they get into this?” And I started kind of reading about Wes, Owen Wilson and those guys. And I realized these are just like a bunch of friends who got into it and now they’re making movies for a living. And something clicked for me then. And it was right around that time when I said, “I think a lot of people do a lot of different things for work. I think some people must have to make movies for a living. I feel like that’s me.” I grew up in the Midwest, but I just saved up all the little money I had, and as soon as I turned 21, I finished school and I moved out to California and I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t have any connections or any leads on jobs or anything. I probably had enough money to survive for maybe a couple months. And I thought, I’m going to give it a go. And if I can get a job, I’ll stay. And if I don’t, I’ll go home and live in my parents’ basement. I was working at Blockbuster Video at the time. It was amazing. [laughs] But, I moved out to California. That was early 2002 and I never moved back. I’ve been here ever since.
Nerds and Beyond: What was the first thing you worked on when you arrived in California?
DHeinz: First job I had was not in post-production. I was trying to get into post-production, but I worked at a literary management company and my job was to answer the phones and make coffee and occasionally read a script and that was my job. It was a great starting gig and they paid me, so I was able to afford to live out here for longer. So that worked out.
Nerds and Beyond: What advice would you have for somebody who wanted to pursue a career in visual effects or in editing?
Heinz: I think the technology exists now for people to do so much on their own. Even with their phones. I mean, you can do rudimentary visual effects with certain apps on your phone. With the new iPhone, the camera’s incredible. I mean, people have made feature films with their phones before. The advice to young people is, now more than ever, just do it. Just keep working, keep honing your craft, upload it to YouTube if you want or don’t. Just keep going at it because it used to be that you had to wait for someone else’s permission to make a movie. And those days are gone. All the tools are in people’s pockets to make their own movies. I fully believe that talented people will rise and they will always be sought out and valued. So just keep going.
Nerds and Beyond: Definitely. I mean, looking at films like Tangerine or The Florida Project, they were shot with basic tech, but still pack an emotional punch.
Heinz: Absolutely. That’s all people care about, and seeking a story.
Nerds and Beyond: What do you hope people take away from watching The Call of the Wild when they finally get to see it in theaters?
Heinz: I’m very excited for people to see this movie. People know, I’m sure, the themes of the book and our film largely follows those themes. Listening to what’s inside you, finding your path, finding your home, finding where you belong. I guess in a sense it’s kind of like what we were talking about with me. I felt a calling to do this and I am so happy that I listened to that thing inside of me. And our story is largely about that. I hope people take that away from it thematically, and I hope people are just entertained by it.
One thing I have been noticing is that after the trailer came out, there was discussion about “why do this movie with the CG main character? Why not train a dog to be in the movie?” And it’s so frustrating because I can’t say anything because I don’t wanna spoil anything. But I’ll just say that when people watch this movie, when they see this movie, that question will be answered right away. So I think people just have to trust it. People who know the story probably already know the answer to that question, but everybody else who’s asking…that question will be answered very soon.
Nerds and Beyond: My last question for you, if anyone is interested in seeing more of your work or following your future work, where can they find you?
Heinz: Well I am taking a little break. I’ve been on this movie two and a half years and my wife is about to have our son. He’s due any day now.
Nerds and Beyond: Congratulations!
Heinz: Thank you! So I don’t have any immediate movies coming out. But be on the lookout, because I’m sure I’ll be back at work in the next couple months.
Nerds and Beyond: I think fatherhood’s your new project at the moment.
Heinz: [laughs] I have a movie and a baby coming at the same time.
Nerds and Beyond: That’s amazing. That’s crazy timing for you. Thank you so much for your time!
The Call of the Wild will be released on February 21, 2020.