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“The Fact That It’s Thermal Imagery, It Hits Memory in a Different Way”: EDGLRD Creative Director Joao Rosa on Harmony Korine’s Visionary AggroDr1ft


Harmony Korine’s AggroDr1ft unfurls through sheets of kaleidoscopic color — neon shades of gold, aqua and red — that ripple and pulse, achieving almost an intelligence of their own as they add expressionistic textures to the film’s Miami-set tale of a melancholy hitman out for a demonic Final Boss. And while the narrative recalls, at times, Robert E. Howard, Michael Mann and Grand Theft Auto, the film’s genuinely unique method of production allows its hallucinatory vibe — aided by an insidious AraabMuzik score — to reign supreme. Working with his team at new production outfit EDGLRD, including creative director Joao Rosa, who oversaw the film’s VFX, Korine lensed the film using thermal cameras, producing solarized black-and-white images that he then mapped the color fields on top of. And that’s just the beginning. AI was used as well, producing frequent moments when, chillingly, faces seem to dissolve, revealing lysergic flashes of cybernetic-like facial skeletons underneath.

Throughout his work, both in the visual arts as well as film, Korine has been fascinated with the expressive potential of clashing image textures, combining throughout his work 35mm, Super 8, miniDV, color Xerox and various forms of screen printing. In AggroDr1ft, he’s combined image capture technology used by, among others, the military, and AI tools used by the security industry, with large-scale location shooting (the boat races, mob mansions and bacchanalian strip clubs here are all real) to create an immersive adventure designed for the cinema even as it productively rewires your expectation of what a cinematic experience should feel like in 2024. The film has been screening throughout the country in special late-night limited engagements after having premiered at last Fall’s Venice Film Festival.  I spoke with Rosa just before the film’s run about AggroDr1ft‘s pioneering use of AI and thermal imagery, adapting to Korine’s creative strategies, and life at EDGLRD.

 Filmmaker: Tell me a bit about your background and then how you landed at EDGLRD and working with Harmony.

Rosa: I grew up in Brazil. My father is a stop-motion animator, so I was always around animation, photography and film. And my mom is super into film. When I was 22, I moved to the US to study — to do a computer animation course in Hollywood. Then I started to work in smaller animation and VFX boutiques in L.A. For 10 years, I was in a company that started very small but grew a lot during my time there. We were doing a title sequences for HBO, Netflix, etc., shows including Game of Thrones, True Detective, Westworld, The Crown. We did some big title sequences for films like Captain Marvel and Mulan, and some really exciting video game work for Gears of War. I took one break from that place because I had the opportunity to work on Thor: Ragnarok, which was really awesome. And one experience was doing VFX on an Apple commercial, which is where I met one of the editors who works closely with Harmony, Leo Scott, who edited Trash Humpers and AggroDr1ft. It was through this connection with Leo that I eventually started to work with Harmony, and AggroDr1ft was the first project.

Filmmaker: It’s interesting how you’ve made this move to EDGLRD at a time when there’s so much debate about the sustainability of doing VFX and about the workplace pressures on VFX artists given these huge machines that demand so many shots with such crazy time pressures.

Rosa: In the industry I was part of you heard about these problems all the time. But my experience was different because a lot of these more unhealthy and crazy pressure projects actually left Los Angeles and went to, mostly, Canada or London – places that had financing incentives. A lot of my friends had to move out of the country. I decided to stay and had a very healthy experience in the VFX industry in places that were small and very oriented towards our wellbeing. But it’s an industry that doesn’t have a union. I saw the writers and actors strike, and they were talking of things that we [in the VFX industry] have never dreamt of, like royalties. But it’s great to have this [relationship with EDGLRD] because another issue with the VFX industry is that the relationships are not long. EDGLRD provides this possibility of a longer relationship between Harmony and the visual team to go deeper and deeper and deeper into the films’ aesthetics and themes. Like right now we’re working on Baby Invasion, and it is an evolution of a lot of things in AggroDr1ft.

Filmmaker: So how is what you are doing with Edgelrd and AggroDr1ft similar and how is it different than the more conventional VFX work you did on previous films?

Rosa: It’s very different because because Harmony just has a completely different vocabulary when he’s talking about his work. A lot of it comes from his desire to create strong images. Sometimes he expresses this in the form of paintings, and sometimes he expresses this in the form of film. Harmony is just excited to experiment and see how he can push forward his vision. And he doesn’t just do that with the effects. I see him do this with sound and the edit. He’s a genius at starting things and putting in the same room people who will have amazing contributions to his vision. And then he lets it happen. He keeps it within the bounds of where he wants to go, but he’s very embracing of everything that’s happening in the process. Part of his way of pushing us is to throw at us at the last minute the most crazy thing he can. He’s like the big bang, where the thing explodes and then where things land is very organic but also chaotic. He is very direct when it’s not the way he was imagining it and will make sure it goes back on track, but he wants to see every possibility, which for VFX is amazing because the really difficult thing with VFX nowadays is how many things you can do. It’s paralyzing for most people, and Harmony is just able to extract the purest, most important thing. And he’s ready to throw away all the things that might look fantastic but really don’t contribute to the vision.

Filmmaker: How much was the VFX work planned for before the shoot?

Rosa: I would say close to zero, but we had concepts of how we would work. I did not say like, “Oh, film things like this or that.”

Filmmaker: But did you know that there would be this big VFX role for you after the film shoot?

Rosa: Yes. Before filming, in the writing and concept phases, we were doing camera tests, and I was part of that. The project wasn’t necessarily going to be a film — Harmony said, “I’m not going to do a film.” The idea was to shoot a lot of scenes, and I think it was Leo who said that even though Harmony said he was not going to do a film, he was counting the minutes. But we weren’t attached to the idea of making a film, so nothing happened traditionally. And then once we had all the footage, the film really was crafted in the edit room by getting all the footage, finding a narrative, and finding what was really special about it.

We realized that [the footage] was completely hypnotic and that the footage didn’t land the same way [it would in a more conventionally shot film]. We would work with it in the edit, and watch it, and the next day it’s almost like you forgot it. The fact that it’s thermal imagery, it hits memory in a different way. So, by realizing all these things, the process of crafting the film was a very interesting one. It was layers upon layers of VFX, which is why I didn’t have to “VFX supervise” [during production] much, because it was all about the layers we added to [the footage]. Like, I could not say for sure that I would be able to track a shot when it was shot in thermal. The software is all made for RGB, not for thermal, not for temperature. I knew I could do some rotoscoping, but there were a lot of things I didn’t know we could track. This is why I decided to experiment with AI because AI, which was just in its very infancy in 2020, [offered] an opportunity to work with shots that [wouldn’t have worked] in a traditional VFX [pipeline].

Filmmaker: What were some of the tools you used on this project, AI and not?

Rosa: AI was used more in the scripting [code] realm. There was no Midjourney, no DALL-E — the common ones were not out yet, or they wouldn’t have handled video, anyway. I have a collaborator in Brazil, and he started to put together code — for example, a facial recognition protocol used for security cameras combined with pose estimation [software] that is used for something else in industry, like safety. He started to stream together all these things that would allow us to recognize bodies and faces. And then he started to combine that with Disco Diffusion, which had really good image tracking and allowed us to keep things tracked to the movement of the characters pretty well. So, it was really a combination of different scripts that we’d string together. And then in the more traditional VFX route, which was mostly myself and a designer, Chuck Boston, we used tools like ZBrush and Maya to design the 3D masks. Those masks we are wearing now are actually a 3D printing of the 3D model that Chuck created for the film.

Filmmaker: I know Harmony has always liked elements of kind of randomness and chance and VFX work is often the exact opposite. Were the methods you were using ones that would introduce a level of chance to the imagery?

Rosa: We wanted to experiment a lot with VFX, so we locked the edit in like a week.

Filmmaker: Wow!

Rosa: Yeah, it was crazy. No one could believe it, but Leo got completely obsessed and immersed himself in the footage. And within a week he had a cut that Harmony was happy with, and he said, “I’m not going to mess with it anymore” so I could start with the VFX. And then the VFX process started, and we were so excited about it that we just leaned into that. The was so much room for experimentation because once you have a locked edit, you can try different things, and there’s a chance for, as you said, randomness, because the AI thing is pure randomness, right? It’s like a slot machine – you’re producing multiple [outputs] and then selecting [what’s best for the film]. Harmony was obviously amazing at curating that, and then it was treated as a layer in the film. There are never any moments in the film where it’s a full-on AI product. It’s always masked in ways that to us look more beautiful, more special in the frame. And that goes for [other layers] too. There are ways they rigged these thermal cameras so that [the footage] is not straight up the result of a thermal camera. Like, you see detail in the eyes and faces, in the textures, and you see reflections — things the thermal camera wouldn’t pick up.

Filmmaker: There’s a blending of thermal cameras and other types of cameras?

Rosa: Yes. The thermal camera doesn’t immediately give you those colors that you see on screen. It just gives you a black-and-white output that you match colors to. White is the hottest part of the image and black is the coldest, and then you have to remap that with the color they want. So every single thing was completely crafted to achieve the final result that you see.

Filmmaker: I was really struck that there’s the substitution in the image of fine detail with, for lack of a better word, color fields. But I can tell that that fine detail is there and was captured practically on set. Like, for example, the strippers on the trapezes in the strip club, I’m assuming that was shot.

Rosa: Yeah, pretty much everything is shot. The sparklers coming out of their vaginas, that was added. But it was really made like a film. Even though the made it fast, they went all in. Those sets were built, they had the boats, etc.

Filmmaker: Tell me a little bit about then your current and forthcoming work at Edgelrd. You mentioned that Baby Invasion is extension of some of these ideas.

Rosa: Edgelrd was probably more of an idea in Harmony’s head, but there was no physical space where it was happening. So after AggroDr1ft, we had a conversation about starting something in Miami that would be like a lab, or a design collective, where things are constantly happening through experimentation. After AggroDr1ft I moved to Miami and brought several people from L.A., from Brazil and other parts of the world. And that was the start of EDGLRD, which is now much bigger. We’re now having to get more space as the tech side of the company is getting really robust. It’s really something Harmony wants to focus on, how tech and art work together. We have access to a lot of exciting equipment, cameras and supercomputers.

I love doing Harmony Korine films; I love going through his scripts, things he has written in the past, and finding ways of executing those and also ideas that he may have on the fly that we can quickly prototype. And for that we are heavily leaning into real-time technologies, which are the videogame engines. Baby Invasion is heavily live action, with all these layers of VFX and AI, but the narrative is even more out there; it’s even more of a confrontational film.

Filmmaker: Do you see yourself developing technology that will be used outside of Harmony’s work?

Rosa: That’s the goal. Harmony doesn’t want EDGLRD to be purely a “Harmony Korine”-expression. He’s very excited about all the collaborators, especially the young talent that he can nurture here and execute some of their creations. We are building these tools to craft a larger platform that goes through almost the entire filmmaking process and makes it faster. The amazing thing about EDGLRD is the fact that we are very committed to working together physically. Harmony is always here, and there’s no way to describe the things that happen in the rooms here.

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