VFX Q&A – Van Ling on ‘Cliffs of Freedom’

by Joe Fordham

During the television broadcast of the 91st Academy Awards, viewers may have glimpsed a trailer for a sweeping historical epic, Cliffs of Freedom. The independent feature, released by Round Hill Media, boasted an impressive cast – Billy Zane, Christopher Plummer, Patti LuPone and Lance Henriksen – and glamorous co-stars, Jan Uddin as a Turkish colonel and Tania Raymonde as a feisty Greek woman, in a Zhivago-esque romance of star-crossed lovers set against a backdrop of Ottoman oppression. Equally notable – to anyone conversant with the visual effects community – was the name Van Ling, a long-time collaborator of James Cameron’s, making his theatrical feature directorial debut.

A Boy and his Power Loader. Image © Thom Carroll, Twentieth Century Fox, 1986.

A hidden ‘Easter Egg’ on the Aliens Blu-ray immortalized Van Ling’s introduction to Cameron’s world, revealing how the youthful University of Southern California film school graduate applied his fledgling filmmaker moxie to gain an impromptu audience with the Aliens filmmakers by recreating one of their sci-fi epic’s robotic props. Ling later served as Cameron’s right-hand man on projects from 1986 through 1994, before carving out his own niche with producing partner Casey Cannon at Banned From the Ranch, and then Van Ling Productions. It was Cannon who introduced Ling to Cliffs of Freedom producer Marianne Metropoulos, who was seeking assistance on her project, which required a giant leap into new filmmaking territory. “I became fascinated by this period of world history,” commented Van Ling. “In school, I learned Western European history, but it was all Victorian and Tudor periods, which took students from where they began to where we are in America today – they didn’t spend too much time teaching us about the Ottoman Empire and events in Eastern Europe. That fascinated me, and one of the things we wanted was to find themes that resonated with people today. We wanted this to be a human story, with themes that were relatable to our world today. Revolutions, hope and resilience never seem to go out of style.”

To trace Van Ling’s adventure – from USC to his directorial debut, recreating 19th century Greece, using vast reserves of moviemaking ingenuity and nearly 1,000 visual effects shots – Cinefex caught up with the filmmaker during the Cliffs of Freedom opening weekend.

CINEFEX: Was it always your ambition to become a filmmaker?

VAN LING: Going to USC Cinema School in the mid-1980s certainly encouraged my desire to make movies. That was an exciting time for visual effects films. ILM was king of the jungle, and the maturation of motion control work that was pioneered by ILM, Doug Trumbull and others was reaching its pinnacle. Around the time that I graduated, we were on the cusp of starting to use digital tools to raise the stakes in creating visual effects, and all of those influences inspired me to want to tell stories and work on amazing films.

CINEFEX: USC has a great mentor program. Who were your influences there?

VAN LING: Thomas Stanford, the film editor on West Side Story, taught an editing class and I learned a lot from him. Producer Leon Roth taught ‘The Art and Industry of the Film,’ where different filmmakers would come in every week of the ten-week semester – the first week you would see a current film, and then every subsequent week they’d bring in a department head from that film, one week the director, the next week the cinematographer, and then production designer and the composer would come in. In my semester, we had Back to the Future, which was fantastic. And along those lines, after I graduated, we made Terminator 2 and I came back and coordinated getting a lot of the people from T2 to come in and do that same class. I got to pay it forward.

CINEFEX: Was that how you met James Cameron?

Van Ling directs Christopher Plummer as Thanasi, advisor to a Turkish colonel caught between the whims of a capricious Sultan and an enigmatic rebel leader in “Cliffs of Freedom”.

VAN LING: Well, I first learned about James Cameron when he came to USC in 1984 to screen The Terminator for us in a class where upcoming films were screened for students and the filmmakers come to do a Q&A – this wasn’t the same as the full semester program, but every week they’d screen an upcoming film, and they usually had a producer or an actor or director come in for a Q&A in the big Norris Theater. I loved The Terminator, and I became fascinated by Jim’s stories about guerrilla filmmaking, and working for Roger Corman. I thought to myself, wow, this is an ingenious filmmaker, who’s doing dynamic filmmaking and great storytelling, but he’s doing it as a science fiction genre geek. I would love to work for this guy. Jim and Terry Gilliam and some other folks like that were the ones I was really looking at. But that was a pipe dream at that time, way out of my league, so I focused on my studies and looked forward to Jim’s next film, which of course was Aliens, which came out the year I graduated.

CINEFEX: Cinefex readers may be familiar with your recreation of the P-5000 Power Loader from Aliens, but give us the short version.

VAN LING: The summer I graduated from USC, I did two weeks as a set P.A. on reshoots for Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold, and I worked as a lowly summer intern in the marketing department at Showscan. While I was doing all those things, I would call the Fox production offices of James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd, his producer, asking about internships every week. They’d always reply, ‘Nothing this week, but call back next week’ – that was already a step above what anybody else would say. And then Aliens opened, I went to see it twice on opening day, and one of my roommates from college, Ed Marsh, made a gentlemen’s bet with me regarding my fascination with the Power Loader from the film, the big yellow walking forklift. He dared me to build a model of it in time for his dorm’s upcoming Halloween party.

I showed up at the party with a seven-foot-tall mobile costume, with lights, motorized claws and stilts that I cobbled together in my parents’ garage. And I won that bet. More importantly, earlier in the day, I had called Jim and Gale’s office on the Fox lot one more time, and told them, ‘Hey, I made a Power Loader.’ To my surprise, they said, ‘Bring it on down, we’ll leave you a studio gate pass, we gotta see this.’ I was floored. I rented a pick-up truck, and got down there late in the afternoon. I missed seeing Jim, but Gale came out and said, ‘This is the best walking resume I’ve ever seen.’ And then, she loaned me Sigourney Weaver’s costume and Reeboks for the night to make my costume complete. It’s the kind of story that sounds made up, but it’s completely true, and I don’t think it’ll ever happen again.

CINEFEX: So, is it true – that landed you a job with Jim?

VAN LING: Well, I didn’t build that project with the intent of trying to get a job. I did it because just out of the love of it, and just because I’m a geek. I think it was that sincerity and the love that went into it that showed. My friends who helped me on the project kept telling me, ‘Hey, you should show this to James Cameron!’ But after that experience, meeting Gale, Jim ended up coming down to my parents’ house to meet me. He arrived while I was working on a friend’s student film, building a set out of foam core. And he asked me, ‘Hey, do you know how to do this kind of cut?’ He got down on the floor and started showing me how to cut foam core in a way that you can create rounded edges. And, coincidentally, I’d just gotten my first Macintosh that day, Jim saw that and said, ‘What kind of computer do you think I should get?’ We really hit it off, and that’s when he hired me to be his researcher and technical assistant on The Abyss. I became his computer consultant, his technical assistant and his researcher, and because he knew I was interested in visual effects, I ended up working for Jim for the next eight years.

CINEFEX: What did you learn at Lightstorm that led you to become a filmmaker?

Anna Christina (Tania Raymonde), a young Greek woman, witnesses events that inspire her to become a freedom fighter against Ottoman invaders. Production plate.

Entity FX tracked the Steadicam plate, tracking backward with Raymonde, rotoscoped the performer and composited layers of fog passes, augmenting in-camera fog effects.

VAN LING: I learned so much about every aspect of filmmaking because I was there on almost every meeting on every project. Jim used to call me his ‘extra RAM,’ his random access memory. It was a great opportunity and responsibility. At one point, as digital technology was ramping up, Jim gave me some advice. He said, ‘You have to decide where you want to be. If you want to be a filmmaker, you need to spend more time on sets, learning the rhythms and how all that process works. But if you want to focus on visual effects, you need to spend more time working directly on a computer.’ It was a really tough decision and I thought, ‘What would he do with this opportunity?’

CINEFEX: Is that how you branched out in work with Casey Cannon?

VAN LING: Well, I had met and started working with Casey on T2. She was a friend of Mark Dippé at ILM, he introduced us, and she brought me in to work on some concert videos she was working on. I then brought her in to work with me on some of my Lightstorm projects, like the laserdisc special editions of The Abyss and T2. When Casey started her own computer graphics boutique, Banned From The Ranch Entertainment, I joined as creative director. We were designing and running interactive screen graphics on set for movies like CongoTwister, The Relic, Dante’s Peak, Starship Troopers. This was before the days when most computer screen graphics in movies were comped in after the fact. Prior to that, all the computer screens you saw in movies were video resolution, they weren’t real computers, they all looked like video graphics on standard definition 640×400 TV monitors. We started using real computers, creating computer graphics and animating. We then added visual effects work to our plate, and moved toward more creative story work. For Deep Rising, I designed a graphic sequence to sell the idea that a character comes in and hacks this cruise ship – I storyboarded it all out, we shot the insert shoot, and that solidified my interest in becoming a director.

CINEFEX: How did Casey come to present Cliffs of Freedom to you?

Sultan Mahmud II hosts an audience in the gardens of Hagia Sophia, overlooking the Imperial Mosque, 1808. Agrapha Productions created the palace park environment with background mosque, ornate tent exterior and bluescreen crowd elements.

New Mexico production plate, jib down to reveal tent, exposed for tent interior.

VAN LING: Casey was helping the financier, Marianne Metropoulos, put together her passion project story about her Greek heritage – this fictional story that takes place during Greek history. Casey thought it would be beneficial for me, although I wasn’t thinking about directing. She brought it to me to help figure out some story and script issues, back in 2011. They had a decent script, it wasn’t quite where they wanted it, Marianne wanted it to be more of a love story that happened to be set in this historical context. I brainstormed how to get from point A to point B in her story, and Casey suggested, ‘Why don’t you write that up?’ So, what started as story notes became beat-sheets, which became scene descriptions and dialogue suggestions and, by 2014, I had done a complete page-one rewrite and I started to get invested in the storytelling aspects.

CINEFEX: What threw the switch that turned this into your feature film directorial debut?

VAN LING: I backed into it. We went through a couple of director candidates, while I was just a writer. In fact, as I was writing a script, I was still working on designing Blu-ray menus for all the Hunger Games films and working on Disney Imagineering projects for EPCOT and Disney cruise ships. I was a support player. In 2014, I went with them to Morocco on a two-week scout as a writer, supporting one of their director candidates. But it was really hard to get anyone – studios or cast – interested in a movie that took place in this period. Marianne shelved the project for a year or two and, in the end, I ended up being the last man standing because I knew the script better than anyone.

Janissary Lieutenant Nemid (Morse Bicknell) consults with Captain Sunal (Raza Jeffrey) on the ramparts of the Sultan’s palace. Otto Studios added 3D palace, digimatte buildings, with weathering and blood stains, and birds.

Production plate, crane move up to actors on palace wall. New Mexico sky provides natural bluescreen.

While the film was shelved, Marianne commissioned me to write a TV series proposal about this same historical period. I amortized all my research into a completely new story, The Hellenes. To sell a TV series, you not only have to have a proposal with episode synopses, character details, and a look-book of research, we thought why not make a ‘sizzle reel’? That’s what people do these days for these presentations. So, I scripted 26 pages of shots and dialogue scenes, and directed them while Casey produced this teaser trailer. We brought over some actors from London, a few of whom overlapped into the film – Jan Uddin, who plays our male lead, Tariq, played our Sultan in the sizzle reel. We spent two days in the suburbs of Pasadena at a house that had an amazing Turkish room, and two more days at a cemetery in Compton, which happened to have this Middle Eastern architecture. We used that to double for Istanbul.

As I was editing that footage into a montage, Marianne and her husband Dean saw what I was putting together and they got super excited. They decided to do the feature, and Casey let me know they wanted me to direct. I was surprised because it never occurred to me to put myself in the running. The sizzle reel became the proof of concept, as well as my audition.

CINEFEX: Did you feel up to it?

VAN LING: I felt up to it. Any trepidation that I felt was due to the schedule that they proposed. They knew they didn’t want to shoot in Europe – this was not too long after a bunch of tourists in Tunisia were killed by extremists, and so any thought of going to Morocco, or similar, was unattractive. But this was August 2016, and they wanted to have principal photography done by the end of the year.

CINEFEX: Where did you find your locations?

A Turkish patrol approaches the gates of the walled city of Tripolitsa, a center of Ottoman occupation on the Greek Peloponnese Peninsula. Alchemy 24 tracked and created city wall extensions, and added wagons, tents, and structures within wall.

Partial set piece, shot from an aerial drone camera descending over the New Mexico location.

VAN LING: We looked at Connecticut and Colorado, but we knew by the year’s end it was going to get really cold there, so we looked at Texas, we scouted the Southwest and we found that New Mexico had the best financial incentives. We chose Santa Fe and, to shoot principal within a short period of time, we ended up with only six weeks of prep. To prepare for nine weeks of principal photography in the last quarter of the year, from Fall into Winter, for a story that took place mostly in Autumn and Spring, we had to hit the ground running. So, we did have some trepidation, but with all of our visual effects background, we knew it was possible.

CINEFEX: How did you use your visual effects knowledge to plan the shoot?

VAN LING: We storyboarded a number of action sequences and key moments. But, even as a visual effects person, my main instinct was to try to do this all live, if possible, without relying on visual effects. For our opening scene, I envisioned a flashback and I wanted to play the whole sequence as if it had been shot in a dust storm, because I wanted it to have a foggy, hazy feeling. I had that very specific idea, and the first thing I learned was we had zero control over weather. When we tried to shoot fog effects in-camera, the wind would blow the fog away, and if we re-set and moved our fog effects upwind, the wind changed direction. Those are the kind of things you run into and those are the kind of times that we always knew we had visual effects in our hip pocket.

CINEFEX: The opening sequence is impressive, with fighting played in slow motion silhouette against the haze – how did you pull that off?

A Greek villager, Christina Kanelos (Raquel Cassidy), cradles her child amid the chaos of a Turkish attack. Entity FX layered characters into layers of mist for the stylized opening sequence.

Production plate bluescreen element of Raquel Cassidy, shot at 48 frames per second.

VAN LING: Once we realized there was no way we were going to be able to actually shoot it in smoke, I designed the whole sequence as something that we shoot on greenscreen. We shot all the different elements, separated them and then multi-planed them together into a cohesive scene. Mat Beck and his team at EntityFX did that opening sequence in the fog. They helped us put all that together and then they also came in to do a bunch of fight shots and battle sequences.

CINEFEX: Tell us how you shot your clifftop scenes.

Additional greenscreen elements of Greek villagers, shot as locked-off elements for the opening scene.

VAN LING: We found some real cliffs where we shot in New Mexico. Nothing substitutes being able to shift the camera on a slight dolly with a character standing on the edge of the cliff and seeing the parallax shift that tells you, wow, you are on a cliff. That meant we had to do some cable removals, for safety, so we storyboarded all of those scenes to figure out the logistics and camera angles and again, minimizing the amount of visual effects that we needed to do.

CINEFEX: How did you drop the Ottoman Empire behind your action?

VAN LING: We knew we would need visual effects for a couple of establishing shots, but we built sets for most everything else. Our production designer Charlie Campbell built an Ottoman Palace, a hallway and a courtyard that she could swapped out and redress as different parts of the palace. Apart from our location scenes, up in the hills and the rocks representing the Greek countryside, for our main Greek village, Charlie and her team redressed an abandoned high school in the middle of downtown Santa Fe. That’s something you don’t see every day! We had our Ottoman courtyard set, four walls, little hallways and arches and doors and a little market area outside of it, and we built all of that on a baseball field in this high school. We built the village square for the Greek village on the basketball court and we dressed the building façades as if they were stone Greek buildings, rather than modern school buildings. Charlie was amazing. She came on board for our sizzle reel, and she was ingenious in finding ways to make things work. We worked really well together, knowing what she could accomplish in practical builds and what visual effects could add to that.

Turkish Colonel Tariq (Jan Uddin) and his Greek tutor Thanasi view Ottoman Empire troops on the eve of an attack on the rebel hordes. Agrapha Productions added Turkish troops, wagons, horses and dust effects.

Production plate, craning above performers atop 30-foot-tall set-piece of the Ottoman city gate, shot on location in New Mexico. Troop extras, with terrain tracking markers, in background.

CINEFEX: Did you do any soundstage work?

VAN LING: If you consider the high school gym, where we erected some greenscreen as a soundstage, yeah, we did some stage work. It was really interesting guerrilla filmmaking, yet bigger than it probably should have been.

CINEFEX: What stylistic approach did you use to convey the scale of your battle scenes – the Ottoman army rallying against the rebels – on a budget?

VAN LING: We studied battle scenes from all sorts of previous movies, including a number of Greek films about some of these historical incidents, and we cherry-picked what felt best for our particular story. The goal was to shoot action with long lenses and keep the battle going with a lot of motion in the background, but always focusing on our characters. Cory Geryak, our director of photography, had other ideas. I storyboarded everything out but Cory had this theory, which I know a couple of DPs ascribe to, which is to backlight every shot. When I questioned lighting continuity, Cory explained the continuity was that everything looked great – which was a very interesting way to approach it! He had previously been gaffer for cinematographers Phedon Papamichael and Wally Pfister, so he was experienced in that regard, but it was his first time as a DP, just as it was my first time as a director. He learned from what he learned and I brought what I learned, and so it was an interesting back-and-forth.

CINEFEX: Did Jim Cameron offer any advice on methods for dealing with this style of guerrilla filmmaking?

Christina and her rebels observe the Ottoman encampment. Otto Studios added 3D digimatte Turkish camp and valley, with atmospheric haze.

Production plate, camera craning above performers, shot on hilltop overlook with bluescreen backdrop.

VAN LING: When I started getting ready to go into production, I did write to Jim, because he was one of my sponsors to get into the DGA for this film. I told him about my trepidations, and he told me how he got into fistfights with his first producer, he got fired off Piranha 2, and they locked him out of the editing room. His advice was roll with it. That was probably one of the strongest encouragements I had.

CINEFEX: Did the Van Ling directing style become pugilistic?

The Ottoman camp. Otto Studios added 3D digimatte Turkish camp extension, mountains, forest, ground dirt, haze, smoke and bluescreen troop elements.

New Mexico production plate, craning up above foreground props and performers, with bluescreen backing.

VAN LING: That’s not really my style, but I had to find the strength to just keep going through it. I have to say, in 30 years of being in the business, it was the most difficult shoot I’ve ever been on. Part of that was because, as a beginner, you come into a show and everybody thinks they need to tell you how their department works – or how they want it to work for them! This was another thing I learned from Jim: learn how to do everything, because that knowledge empowers you to call people on their bullshit.

CINEFEX: How did you land in Wellington, New Zealand, for your postproduction?

VAN LING: We chose Wellington not because of any connection with Lightstorm, or Jim. It came from Casey looking around to try and find ways to save money. There was a great tax incentive. The real draw for me was the fact that I really respected what the folks in Peter Jackson’s camp were able to do. They have the equivalent of their own Skywalker Ranch down there, at Park Road Post. It’s a wonderful place, with a nice attitude that reminded me of my days at Skywalker, and I enjoyed working there. Our sound designer was Dave Whitehead, whom I had worked with on a DTS trailer that I had designed ten years earlier, and our sound mixer was Michael Hedges, who had won the Academy Award for some of Jackson’s King Kong and The Return of the King. They’re all really laid back, and super talented.

CINEFEX: From the credits, it looks like you had a large visual effects team. In addition to Park Road Post and Entity FX, there were many other studios – Otto Studios, Umedia VFX, Fin Design & Effects, SlateVFX, BFX ImageWorks, Cause+FX Visual Effects, Barraca Post, Rodeo FX and La Posta – as well as some familiar friends, Agrapha Productions, Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. and Daren Dochterman.

Greek rebels ambush an Ottoman caravan and detonate a wagon full of gunpowder and ammunition. Agrapha Productions and Plural blended on-set pyrotechnic effects and stunt elements with digital dirt and stock fire and smoke elements.

New Mexico production plate with stunt performers portraying cable-pull effect with dust and dirt explosion.

VAN LING: We went in planning 200 to 300 effects shots. That included the big establishing shots of Istanbul and Tripolitsa, matte painting backgrounds, greenscreen work for the actors on the cliffs, as well as some period setting anachronism removals. But we didn’t plan for the fact that we were shooting into winter, so we also had snow removal, rain removal, cold breath removal, adding digital green leaves onto trees because they were all bare. We also had some financier whims, people asking for aesthetic changes to do with costumes – those required a lot of roto, and color changes. There were also wire removals and other clean-up work.

CINEFEX: Who did your matte paintings?

VAN LING: Rodeo FX worked on some of our larger cityscapes, and they came in as an assist to the smaller vendor that they acquired, Alchemy 24 in Montreal, who did some amazing work for us. Daren Dochterman, who is another friend from my days at USC Cinema School, did half a dozen smaller digimatte paintings – the wide village meadow and Greek valley establishing view when Christina leaves to join the rebels – as well as interactive lighting shots during the caravan explosion. We also had some challenging work in our clifftop scenes in the third act that was done at SlateVFX in Australia, augmented by Juan Robertson of Plural in New Zealand, to get the final look I wanted.

CINEFEX: What did ADI do for you? You have some rather tragic deaths among the romance and your battle scenes.

Director Van Ling oversees a vertiginous clifftop scene making use of safety rigging, designed for digital rig removal, to allow precarious placements of performers at the precipice.

In the battle of Valtetsi, Turks aim a cannon at Christina and her cousin Demetri (Jamie Ward) on a nearby cliff. The production shot separate elements of foreground cannon action, against bluescreen, mid-ground battle and a background cliff. Plural composited the three layers, providing geographic relation between the ground level action and clifftop finale.

Turkish cannon fire shatters a cliff, separating Christina from her cousin. SlateVFX augmented an aerial drone shot of natural crevice in a New Mexico cliff location, adding a 3D digimatte cliff, digi-double characters, falling rock and dust elements. Plural added smaller boulders and tumbling rocks.

VAN LING: Tom and Alec at ADI were kind enough to create the prosthetics for our hero gruesome throat-slitting scenes. They are old friends from the Stan Winston days – along with the team at Legacy Effects – who worked on Aliens and T2. I love those guys and I am always trying to advocate for the use of real, on-set, practical prosthetics makeup and animatronics, augmented with digital touchup, for better realism and actor connection.

CINEFEX: How was it acting as your own visual effects supervisor?

VAN LING: That was the biggest thing that was a challenge for me. I went in thinking, yeah, I can do this – but the visual effects became a lot bigger than we expected. It was an eye-opening experience. Being part of a team is nothing compared to having to lead the team. It’s a huge responsibility to have the vision and to get everyone rowing in the same direction. I learned so much, through mistakes, dumb luck, and once in a while being validated in my approach. I have even more respect now for what a director does. It is not for the faint of heart. We went into production so fast, I was still wrapping up some of my Disney work, so there was a period during principal where I would go to set at 6:00 a.m., we’d shoot all day, I’d get to my hotel room at midnight, I would then spend the next two hours doing shot lists for the next day, and then at around 2:00 a.m., I’d work another two or three hours on the Disney projects, and then get a couple hours of sleep and then go back out to set. Being a visual effects supervisor, if you’re doing it right, is a full-time job. And being a director, obviously, is a full-time job. I would not recommend doing both. You’ll notice, on Jim’s films, he still creatively supervises everything, but he is no longer his own visual effects supervisor because the duties that go with that are so great.

CINEFEX: What’s next for you, Van?

VAN LING: Well, I’ve been on this project for nearly three years – more than twice that, if you count our work before production – so, first of all, rest is on the agenda. But, I do have stories of my own that I’ve been developing for a while, and they are more in my genre wheelhouse. I have a lot of writing to do.

‘Cliffs of Freedom’ imagery © Aegean EntertainmentThanks to Van Ling, Casey Cannon, Elizabeth Denekamp, Brenna Nimkoff, Marilyn Lopez, Daniel Chartock, TAG Media Group, Allison Jackson.