Ghosts in the Machine

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Joseph Kosinski
Joseph Kosinski
For years people have been saying that video games will one day rival the quality of movies, but—according to director Joseph Kosinski—"only in the last year have we seen it get as close as people have talked about." And he should know. His spots for the Xbox titles Gears of War and Halo 3—both via McCann-Erickson/San Francisco—effectively blurred the line between films and games, both in technique and execution. For his trailer for Gears of War, Kosinski worked inside the actual game engine to introduce the saga of Marcus Fenix—set to a cover of Tears for Fears' "Mad World" that first appeared on the Donnie Darko soundtrack—in a way that was almost shockingly human. Meanwhile, for the Halo 3 spot Starry Night, he worked in the opposite direction, using motion capture to bring the trilogy's protagonist, Master Chief, to photorealistic life. Most recently, his work on the border between effects and live action has earned Kosinski ad assignments for Chevy and Hummer—for the latter, he made driving a Hummer into a game worthy of the Xbox. He's also bringing his skills to the big screen with feature film remakes of Logan's Run and Tron, "sacred ground for sci-fi fans," as he says.

Oddly enough, Kosinski didn't learn about effects in film school. Instead, the Iowa native, now 33, studied mechanical engineering at Stanford, then attended architecture school at Columbia. "After I graduated, I realized I didn't want to be an architect," he says. "But I'd learned a lot of cool things in architecture school that I could use to do other things, like make short films." Straight out of school, he was hired by the Department of Energy to create demonstration films based on the 3D rendering techniques he'd used for his senior thesis. A version of that thesis, meanwhile, made it into animation festivals and earned him a commission from Nike to produce Les Jumelles, a stylized short about twins who live in what he describes as a "futuristic chateau." After building his reel, he moved to L.A. and signed with Anonymous Content.

Given that he began his career creating digital environments, Kosinski says that his "process is kind of backwards from the way a lot of [directors] work," in that he relies heavily on pre-visualization techniques to plot out his projects very early in the process. "Almost all the projects I've worked on lately, we've been able to have a nearly locked edit within the first week or two of starting the project, and then you kind of fill in from there," he says. "To me, it doesn't seem so strange, and at Anonymous it doesn't seem so strange, because in some ways I think it's kind of similar to the way [Anonymous co-founder David] Fincher's been working, bringing in the digital tools early to help you—not just to create pretty pictures —but to really help you plan your production out from the beginning." Kosinski seems like the perfect pick to direct both his upcoming features, but especially TronLes Jumelles is even reminiscient of the 1982 original—which is sure to be the sort of movie that will have fans camping out for tickets. The movies are being developed in parallel, and it isn't clear which will make it to theaters first, but Kosinski has a distinct vision for each. Logan's Run, he says, will be an "analog" sci-fi film, "a thriller set in a different time and place," rather than a digital spectacle. Tron, on the other hand, will be—well—Tron. "The original was so ahead of its time in a lot of different ways that our approach with the new Tron is the same, in that we want it to be just as innovative for our time, so we've got some ideas and things that we're going to do that are also going to make it the next step for filmmaking for 2009 or 2010, or whenever it comes out."

Meanwhile, on the commercials front, Kosinski says he sees the pendulum swinging in his direction. "Technology is completely a part of our lives now, so it makes sense that in advertising it would have a stronger presence, but the trick is to find a way to integrate it without it feeling cold," he says. "The high-production value, stylized look of commercials that maybe went out of vogue a couple years ago with more lo-fi ads—it seems like that level of production is kind of coming back. And I think that's a good thing."
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