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Production: Pay no attention…

The Hunger Games trilogy has garnered rave revues and big box office. Like many films today, the three films require a temporary suspension of reality. Or like the Wizard of Oz might say, “Pay no attention to that room behind the curtain.”

By Monte Swann,
Supervising Engineer, Cygnet Video

Hunger Games:  Mockingjay. Command and control

It’s the future as depicted in Hunger Games: Mockingjay. Command and control in an underground bunker with no flickering of the monitors.

We’re far below the ground in a cavernous room illuminated by the light of a giant video screen suspended from the ceiling. The room is jammed with electronic monitoring equipment and it’s buzzing with activity as technicians on two levels monitor hundreds of video feeds. Although the technology is a combination of Apollo era electronics and the latest cutting-edge equipment, it’s impressive in its scope. This is the Command center of District 13 where its citizens are waging a valiant war against President Snow and the Capitol.

All the major players are here as Haymitch leads a wide-eyed Katniss Everdeen into the room. President Coin and her staff are gathered around a dozen smaller screens monitoring the daring mission to rescue Peeta Melark and the others from the Capitol. Plutarch sits next to Beetee who is focused intently on the monitors of his makeshift broadcast jamming station. On the giant screen is a live feed of Finnick Odair, broadcasting a defiant message to the citizens of the Capitol while feeds from the rescue hovercraft and the helmet cams of its occupants, including Gale Hawthorne and Colonel Boggs, flicker to life around him.


It’s not as impressive as the command room in the film, but here is where the real control resides for Mockingjay; behind the scenes where the work never stops.

But of course, none of this is real. This is just one of the sets built for the last two chapters of The Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay, and we’re not far below the ground. We’re standing inside a Spanish colonial-style stage at the former Lakewood fairgrounds just outside Atlanta in what was once a livestock exhibition hall. The director, Francis Lawrence yells, “Cut!” and the war party relaxes, resuming their real-world identities. Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss) snaps out of character immediately and starts’ goofing on Woody Harrelson (Haymitch) while Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch) turns to Julianne Moore (Pres. Coin) and starts discussing last night’s dinner. Jeffery Wright (Beetee) is more than happy to get out of his wheel chair and walk around the set for a while. “Okay, we got that. Moving on for coverage,” announces Chris Surgent, the first assistant director. This means we’ve finished the main body of the scene and we’re going in for tighter coverage.

command roomBut, in a room hidden under the front half of the set, buried behind the big LED screen, the war is still raging. This is where the real Command Center is located. It’s a cramped space built within the confines of the set that looks more like the attic space under a mansard roof than a command center. The room is surrounded by high-tech video equipment and dozens of computer screens lined up on long folding tables, and neat bundles of wires snake across the floor and climb up the supporting posts like the roots from some synthetic tree, before exiting through the rear wall. Suspended from the sloping ceiling are two flat screen TV’s, showing feeds from the cameras just outside, and a blueprint, detailing the floor plan of the set dangles between them.

Technicians wearing wireless headsets roll in their office chairs from machine to machine, typing commands into keyboards, updating the displays for the next scene. One technician sits in front of a refrigerator-sized case holding the electronics that control the routing of all the images to their destinations, while a graphics artist huddled under one of the cross beams is modifying content as the script dictates. If this isn’t a war room, what is?

Suddenly, the door swings open and one of the producers pops her head in and looks around. “We could have saved a lot of money if we dispensed with the set entirely and shot the whole scene in here!” she says. “Let’s do it! Get me to wardrobe,” I say, laughing.

This is the world of 24-frame video playback, a little-known but essential process that enables filmmakers to photograph video and computer screens without unwanted artifacts. The goal, like set dressing, props, or hair and makeup, is to be invisible. For example, when the scene calls for Haymitch to scroll through a series of schematics on a screen with just a wave of his hand, he only has to wave his hand. The actual scrolling and placement of the images has been pre-programmed and is being controlled by a video technician in our command center. The process has been around for a long time. I was introduced to it on Howard the Duck back in 1986 and I’ve been practicing it ever since.

As the supervising video engineer on Mockingjay, it was my job to realize the vision of director Francis Lawrence and production designer Phillip Messina in regards to the technology implemented by Panem, and more specifically, District 13. The look they wanted was a blending of modern technology with older technology, the result of a closed society who had limited access to outside technology. The video department worked very closely with set dressing, and the art department, and we came up with a great combination of vintage consoles and state-of-the-art, nearly seamless LED flat screens. The command center eventually incorporated more than 80 individual monitors, plus a massive 16’ x 9’ LED wall, looming over the front of the set.

To streamline the process, the studio decided to shoot both films, (Mockingjay Part 1 and Part II) concurrently. Principal photography began in Atlanta at the end of September and nine months later wrapped in Berlin. Almost every set featured an array of video screens or control devices of some kind, creating plenty of work for us. Beetee’s workshop had at least a dozen screens, Coin’s meeting room featured a large LED wall, and the cafeteria, where Katniss first see’s Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) broadcasting live from the Capitol, had screens everywhere. Then there was the Hospital, the Hydroponics Garden and the Emergency Command Bunker, which was a scaled down version of the main Command Center, but it still required more than 45 video screens, and all the equipment and personnel to control it.

Back in the District 13 Command Center, the lighting is set, the cameras are in place and everyone is ready for the next shot. Harrelson strolls in after taking a break outside in his magic bus, Julianne Moore is discussing the details of the scene with Francis and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Jeffrey Wright casually rolls back to his mark in his wheelchair. The first AD calls out “Last looks!”—the two words that tell everyone to finish tinkering because all of the actors are in place—and we’re ready to shoot.

Everyone’s in costume, the set is all lit up, and it looks so real you’d swear the battle with the Capitol is actually taking place. Jennifer Lawrence is laughing and goofing around with somebody else now, but when Francis calls “Action!” she snaps into character instantly, donning her mask of deep concern for her fellow citizens. It’s remarkable how effortless it is for her.

It’s been a long battle and we’ve made some headway today, but with the words “That’s a wrap,” the whole of Panem and its 13 districts vaporize with a flip of a switch. The lights and monitors go dark; the set fades into a dull gray, and the citizens of District 13 slowly drift out of the room and become regular people once again. But the war is far from over. Tomorrow morning at 6:00 a.m., we all reconvene in the same spot and resume our battle with the evil Capitol.

Monte Swann is the supervising engineer at Cygnet Video, a Los Angeles based video production facility. He recently completed work on the latest installment of Jurassic World.

November 19, 2015