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How Vera Drew makes independent films and saves "years" of time using Runway

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Sophia Jennings
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May 18, 2022
We sat down with Vera to talk about directing an “illegal comic movie,” and how Runway opened up her creative process.

Vera Drew is a writer, director, and editor in Los Angeles. Her debut feature, The People’s Joker follows an unfunny, aspiring clown grappling with gender identity, first love, and old foes, while founding an illegal comedy theater in Gotham City. We sat down with Vera to talk about directing an “illegal comic movie,” and how Runway opened up her creative process.

Hi Vera! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us today. Before we get into The People’s Joker, I wanted to ask a bit about your career beginnings.

For sure! I came up at Abso Lutely Productions working for Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. I found them when I was in college because I was really into experimental film. Definitely stuff that was pretentious. The sort of visual absurdism, using film and digital as the actual medium itself. I think foolishly, when I was in college and film school, the plan was to become an experimental filmmaker and somehow make a living doing that, and that makes me smile. [Laughs]

Why are you laughing?

[Laughs more] I mean, I think in many ways, I probably would be a lot happier of a person if I stuck with that route. I think the first thing I saw from Tim and Eric was Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! It was using all of those experimental tools that I'd seen, and David Lynch stuff, but with this really crude humor that I really just really enjoyed.

How do you think working with Tim and Eric influenced your relationship to comedy?

For me, I'm always approaching comedy from that perspective of visual experimentation. I really like uncanny valley stuff a lot. I'm an animator too, and a lot of my animations are on paper, like lo-fi, but I really like using lo-fi tools or modern tools to get a lo-fi effect.

For me, I think what is so cool is to actually generate people and images that you cannot see in reality.

You’re generating new characters in your feature. Can you tell us a bit about the background to the project, and what “an illegal comic movie” means?

Well it’s called The People’s Joker, and it’s about coming-of-age in comedy and my gender transition. It’s set in Gotham, I play the Joker in it, and it’s an illegal comic book movie because I’m using characters that I definitely do not own the rights to.

When I started the project, it was this big found footage, mixed-media thing that was going to require a ton of rotoscoping. I was stealing clips from different materials, taking people out of it and putting them in different locations. Obviously, it would have taken years to do manually. So I started researching compositing tools.

Is that how you found Runway?

Yeah. I watched some video on YouTube of this guy using Runway and it literally blew my mind. I come from a post-production and VFX background, and keying has always been - I hated it so much. I love doing visual effects. I love compositing. But when it comes to that part of the process, it is like it's a nightmare every time.

So I put out a call on Twitter asking, does anybody know anything about Runway? [Runway Co-founder] Cris reached out saying he was here to answer any questions. And the rest is history.

What do you mean by “found footage”?

I was taking clips from 2019’s Joker and basically every Batman movie ever made. Part of the process was putting [all the same Jokers,] Jack Nicholson, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jared Leto in the same room. Since that’s been done 1000 times, I decided to actually go a different route with the project. I ended up making an original feature film instead. I wrote the script, shot everything. We had four days of pick up shoots shot entirely on green screen.

What role did Runway play in the film?

It just would not have been possible for me to make this movie without Runway. You know, I hate green screen removal and it takes a long time, even if you're good at it. Seeing what Runway was able to do with stuff that wasn't shot on green screen, made me think that in a studio, lighting my shots really well and making sure that the background is separate from the foreground, there's no reason why this shouldn't be a super smooth and stress-free process.

Part of the process that normally would be the most stressful part, is figuring out how you're going to pull people off the green screen background. It’s been pivotal to the project in that way.

I've used it every step of the way. When I was writing the script, I was piecing together the found footage aspect of it as I wrote.

Are you editing the whole project on your own?

I have a team of people helping me with it, because it’s 11 clips uploaded to the server. We'll create the masks in Runway and make sure those are pretty solid, then I’ll bring them into After Effects and use that to remove the green screen.

Going into the process, my producer and I thought, this will be our first pass at green screen removal and there will obviously be mistakes. We'll need to hire people to help with rotoscoping. Today, I can say that 90 percent, if not 95 percent of the work, is already done just from Runway’s Green Screen function.

How much time do you think you’ve saved?

Years. The movie is no longer just found footage, it’s mixed media. There’s animation. Every background is something original that I had to create. The process itself was always going to take a long time. Without Runway, it would have taken two times as long, if not way longer.

Runway just made it possible. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable spending $30,000 on a shoot if Runway didn’t exist.

Do you feel like using Runway changed your creative process?

Yeah. There are things that I've always wanted to do. I really love frame-by-frame animation, stripping animation down to its essential thing. I used Runway to create a solid mask around a character from Goodfellas named Jimmy Two Times, and I removed him from the background, and then took all of those frames into Photoshop and had a perfectly clean character on its own that I could manipulate.

I traced over and did tons of stuff with him, things I would never have had the idea to do without Runway. It’s opened up a whole new world of creativity for myself, and it also just made me a lot more optimistic about film in general. Just because, I do think this is definitely the bleakest time for movies ever.

But, this project gave me some hope.

Learn more about The People's Joker and follow Vera on Twitter and Instagram. See a sneak peek of her film below:

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