Denis Villeneuve and Clever Workarounds Filmmakers Use on Set


Take a peek behind-the-scenes into how even big-budget directors use some of the same creative DIY tricks that you do.

This might be a bit of a controversial statement, but I firmly believe that Sicario is the best film Denis Villeneuve ever made. I know, I know, the man’s directed Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, and Dune, but there’s just something about Sicario that makes it endlessly watchable.

And, while some may argue that it’s Roger Deakins‘ superb cinematography, or perhaps Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, and Josh Brolin‘s superb performances, I contend that it’s still Villeneuve’s masterful direction and astute visual storytelling.

Also, after recently re-watching the film and going through the behind-the-scenes featurettes on the 4K Blu-ray, I can now report that my love for the film has grown even more significant due to Villeneuve’s clever workarounds on set.

So, in appreciation of Sicario, as well as a way to explore some of Villeneuve’s other films and even some other filmmakers’ contributions to creatively problem-solving onset, let’s look behind-the-scenes to see how you too can use similar workarounds on your projects.

Cheating Your Interiors

After watching through the behind-the-scenes features, I found the section above fascinating (starts at 3:53). And, truth be told, while as director, we can assume that Villeneuve was very much a part of this decision. This segment focuses on Roger Deakins and his creativity on set.

The problem for this filmmaking duo was trying to figure out a way to shoot inside a dark and cramped military vehicle, yet still include a beautiful god ray lighting.

In comparison, the quick solution for some filmmakers might be to wrestle with getting the widest lens and perhaps adding much of the volumetric lighting with visual effects (which is often an excellent option).

For Villeneuve and Deakins, their solution was to re-construct the confines of the vehicle on a soundstage—with cardboard. It’s straightforward, easy, and, as you can see in the featurette and on-screen with the final composition, quite beautiful and practical.

Embracing VFX When Needed

Another big takeaway from peeking behind the scenes of Sicario was the sheer amount of VFX that went into the film that you perhaps wouldn’t recognize on first viewing. Taking a page from his David Fincher playbook, Villeneuve isn’t one to insist on everything being in camera—especially if it means compromising his vision or pushing a project over budget.

Instead, Villeneuve’s use of VFX in this example most probably saved money and allowed his team to shoot much more organically and with a tighter, smaller crew, which can often lead to better results.

There are a couple of sequences you can see in the VFX breakdown above that, while surprising, begin to make a lot of sense to use CGI, once you think about it.

Trying to shut down an entire highway to load in some prop mutilated bodies versus adding VFX to footage shot guerilla-style is always going to cause less headache and budget.

Like, Really Embracing VFX

And, it’s not just from Sicario where you can see Villeneuve’s preference for using VFX either. Like myself, many might be a bit shocked to find out that even on films like Arrival, Villeneuve used a minimal amount of props or in-camera effects for his alien visitors and their ominous crafts.

This time shot in collaboration with another terrific cinematographer, Bradford Young‘s contributions to Villeneuve’s Arrival also made heavy use of organic cinematography with overlaid VFX, almost as if they were working with the matte paints of the old production worlds.

While tricky for those just starting out, when working with creative artists, and with the proper intentionality in mind during production, these types of shots can become as close to seamless magic as possible, as extraordinary characters can genuinely appear as if they were shot in-camera. 

Bringing Indie Film Sensibilities to Blockbusters

Ultimately, one of the biggest reasons I consider myself a fan of Villeneuve’s work is his ability to remain faithful to his indie film roots despite helming some of the biggest blockbusters of recent cinema. From Blade Runner 2049 to Dune: Part One (as well as the upcoming Dune: Part Two), Villeneuve’s films still feel as if you’re watching an intimate character study laid on the back of major theatrical adventures.

As you can see in the behind-the-scenes footage from Dune even, Villeneuve’s influence over the cast and crew feels more like an indie film collaboration than a studio-produced and directed superhero feature.

It’s cool to see Villeneuve on set with the camera in-hand (or on shoulders, to be more exact) as he and his team are simply looking to problem-solve their film shot-by-shot and scene-by-scene as beautifully and creatively as possible.

Other Creative Workarounds on Set

For me, it’s hard not to feel inspired after watching a Denis Villeneuve film. However, when you start to throw in these behind-the-scenes featurettes and peek a bit into how Villeneuve and his talented DPs and crews get things done, it’s downright frustrating not being able to shoot big-budget feature films with your friends.

My biggest takeaway from these revelations is simply that the projects that you do get to work on, no matter what level you’re at in your career, are great opportunities to develop your creative workarounds. And, if you’re talented and dedicated enough, these problem-solving skills and workflows are going to remain pretty much consistent throughout your career.

Suppose Denis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins can still piecemeal together a fake military truck in Sicario. They can digitally matte paint in alien spaceships to your atmosphere exteriors in Arrival. In that case, you and your friends can figure out how to create your own horror special effects, build your own wireless china balls, or record your own high-impact shootout scene

The real question is: What’s stopping you from getting out there and doing it right now?

For more filmmaking inspiration, tips, and tricks, check out these other great articles:

Cover image from Sicario via Lionsgate.


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