Tick, Tick. . . BOOM! is a musical retelling of the story of Jonathan Larson’s scuffling, idealistic days in New York City, leading up to his eventual success as a playwright and composer with Rent, muted by his tragic demise on the day before the first preview performance. Director of photography Alice Brooks, ASC had a very quick introduction to the project.
On her final day of shooting In The Heights – another Broadway musical brought to the screen – Brooks agent called to say that Heights producer and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda wanted her to read the script for his feature directorial debut. Brooks found a tale set in a very precise time and place, a milieu that she had grown up in – New York City’s artistic performance community in the 1980s. “No matter how many movies I make there as an adult, I’ll always see New York City through the mind of a ten-year-old girl, where everything is heightened, including color, light and emotion,” says Brooks.
"PIX IS ALMOST KIND OF BACKGROUND FOR ME, IN A GOOD WAY"
Even her family photos were used during the prep period to inform the film. Miranda’s similar age and New York upbringing gave them a common jumping-off point for a story about a very child-like personality. Weeks were spent dissecting and reassembling the story in meetings that included screenwriter Steven Levenson. Storyboards and animatics were put together and shared via PIX, the X2X collaboration platform that allows for secure and accurate synchronization of notes, media and metadata around the world.
Brooks says that her method involves answering as many technical questions as possible during prep. Miranda wanted to learn about every aspect, including cameras, lenses, color, contrast, and added grain.
“Once I’m making the movie, I like to sort of let that go away and let my intuition take over,” she says. “I grew up as a child actor, so I understand the importance of having an intention in a scene. During prep, I ask the director about the emotional intent of each scene, and how it might change as the scene progresses. During the shoot, every night before I go to bed, I read the pages for the next day, and consider the emotional intention. As long as I remember that, I can stay true to the story rather than worrying too much about the technical.”
After a lengthy prep/rehearsal period, the filmmakers shot for two weeks, but were then stymied by COVID. The timing of the pandemic would rearrange the entire project and require adaptability and patience all around.
"...MANY OF THE EARLY VISUAL EFFECTS REVIEWS THAT I SAW WERE ALL THROUGH PIX"
“The day before the shutdown was one of the best days of filming in my life,” says Brooks. “We were filming outside in New York, and Lin and I were getting all this incredible footage. The whole team was really in sync, and there was so much joy. Then we shut down, and it was pretty heartbreaking for me, Lin and everyone involved. We didn’t know if we were ever going back to finish the movie.”
The shoot paused for six months, except for weekly Zoom check-ins that served as bonding sessions. Once they started back up, another 42 days waited on the schedule.
Miranda’s overall approach to the endeavor borrowed liberally from his theater experience, appropriate given the subject matter and musical format. Bravura sequences transcend by combining the theatrical and the cinematic. Examples include Larson’s moment of genius as he swims laps, and an overwhelming but realistic depiction of a busy restaurant during the Sunday brunch rush. In that scene, the imagery slowly transitions from a straightforward treatment of the sights and sounds of a diner to a more impressionistic representation.
“The look is based off the Seurat painting, and by the end, it goes into a painterly, pointillist quality that is slightly overexposed,” says Brooks. “Everything is a bit smoother and more glowing than it normally would be.”
This and many other tonally delicate scenes in the film required Brooks’ attention from prep through post. For the first eight days of shooting, she saw dailies at Company 3 in New York. After the restart, options were more restricted, and sitting with the dailies colorist was no longer possible. Much of the post production collaboration took place remotely. As a result, both Brooks, Miranda and the entire team depended more on PIX to see and manage how the project was unfolding.
“The editors were off at a remote location with Lin working in New York City, and the digital effects house was in Brooklyn at that point,” says Brooks. “I was off in different parts of the country or the world as well. So many of the early visual effects reviews that I saw were all through PIX. I like to be very involved in the visual effects, because I want to make sure the image is completely in line with our photography. I think of my job as the protector of the image. It’s really important for me to make sure that all of the ideas I bring to the look of the film are followed all the way through visual effects. Luckily, the directors and editors I’ve been working with really push the visual effects team in the right directions. PIX was definitely influential in making sure all of that happened.”
Digital Imaging Technician Abby Levine, a veteran of more than 50 productions in that role, made sure that Brooks was making decisions based on accurate imagery.
"I’VE ALWAYS BEEN ABLE TO BRING UP PIX DAILIES, VIEW THEM IN MY ON-SET ENVIRONMENT, AND A/B THEM WITH VIDEO ASSIST PLAYBACK..."
“Working on Tick, Tick. . . BOOM! was a great experience for me,” says Levine. “Alice’s vision is so good, and her devotion to and investment in her projects is beyond admirable. Normally, there’d be a lot more back and forth with the facility, tweaking the workflow for dailies, but in these times, that has all become remote, which can be a little challenging. I’ve always been able to bring up PIX dailies, view them in my on-set environment, and A/B them with video assist playback, or with my reference pictures to confirm that all’s getting through the way we are expecting. That’s kind of my roundtrip confirmation that, provided I haven’t done anything wrong, any user issues can be attributed to viewing environments or some other wrinkle.
“PIX is almost kind of background for me, in a good way,” says Levine. “Once the pipeline is established, I rarely have a need to check in extensively with dailies. Times have changed! Naturally, I look at PIX periodically to confirm that nothing has changed, or when I get that panicked call from someone else who has seen something amiss.”
Brooks adds, “Abby would notice if the PIX images were really far off from the CDLs that we had sent over. If things needed to be retransferred, he was amazingly specific, helping me protect the image and making sure everyone was getting the right look on their dailies.”
Editors Myron Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum shared an Oscar nomination for their work on Tick, Tick. . . BOOM!, one of many accolades including Best Picture nods from the American Film Institute, the Golden Globes, and the Producers Guild of America. Along the way, Miranda presented Brooks with the Hollywood Critics Association Artisan On The Rise Award. Brooks, who recently became a member of the American Society of Cinematographers, is currently in preproduction on a cinematic version of Wicked, which reunites her with In the Heights director and longtime collaborator John M. Chu.