In This Issue
Spring Bridge on International Frontiers of Engineering
March 15, 2018 Volume 48 Issue 1

An Interview with . . . Lori McCreary, Film and Television Producer

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Author: Lori McCreary

RON LATANISION (RML): We are happy to talk with a producer with a background in science and engineering, for our series to enhance awareness of -engineers’ impact way beyond the typical expectations of them. Entertainment and the production of films are important aspects of our culture with very high visibility.

 Photo of Lori McCreary 

Can you tell us a bit about Revelations Entertainment? I see in a write-up that you and Morgan Freeman founded it in 1996 with a mission to produce entertainment that “reveals truth.” I am curious about that. What was your original vision and how has that played out?

LORI McCREARY: I think it’s about what Morgan and I gravitate to in terms of storytelling. There are a lot of stories about individuals like Morgan or me that have not been told over the years. We were excited about the opportunity to tell our own stories and to find stories of others that have been either overlooked or forgotten and ensure that those stories are told.

I think, as a society, the more we can reach out and understand each other culturally and just as human beings, the more we can come together. Our approach to revealing truth is about allowing voices from all parts of the world to be heard.

RML: Invictus was one of your movies, wasn’t it? I think that was a very good movie. How did it meet the mission? Was it a statement about Mandela or about South Africa in a broad sense? I can see a lot of elements that might be pertinent.

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MS. McCREARY: I think it’s about the truth of reconciliation and healing. The conversation between Morgan and me started a long time ago. We made our first movie together, Bopha!, in 1992. He directed it and I produced it, and it was released in 1993 here in the States. It’s about a black father in the South African police who was enforcing Apartheid, and his son who was part of the resistance movement. It’s a story about the tearing apart of this family in South Africa in 1984 during the height of Apartheid and what happens when you have a father who is trying to provide for his family as part of the establishment and a son who is saying, “Dad, there is something wrong with what’s going on here.”

Nelson Mandela came to one of the premieres in San Francisco and I was fortunate to meet him. This was in 1993 before he became president. He said to me, “This is an important story.” I never forgot when I was shaking his hand that (1) this is Nelson Mandela telling me that I told an important story, wow! and (2) oh my gosh, he reminds me in spirit of Morgan, and I had just met Morgan a couple of years before.

So I committed to myself that I was going to tell Mandela’s story. It took 17 years to do it, but sometimes that is what it takes in our business. What struck Morgan and me was the idea of forgiveness, reconciliation, coming together—and that admitting to each other how we wronged each other is the bridge to coming back together peacefully.

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RML: Do you and Morgan have a special interest in politics and public needs? What is currently on your radar screen, if you can tell us?

MS. McCREARY: We have a CBS television show on Sunday nights called Madam Secretary. We try not to be political but it is a show about the diplomatic world that intersects with politics. The truth we try to reveal in the show is that it’s never black and white. When people watch the news it seems like, ‘Why won’t these people just make these decisions? It’s easy!’ There are always complications. Often people’s lives are at stake, and sometimes their livelihood, and it is not an uncomplicated system.

The public servants who have spent years giving their lives—and a lot of their family time—driving diplomacy and our country to be where we are today are often overlooked. We wanted to peel back the curtain and show the heroes of our diplomatic service.

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RML: That’s an interesting expression. A congressman from Massachusetts, Mike Capuano, has adopted the practice each week of circulating in his office something called “Behind the Curtain.” He tries to look at the kinds of things you just described—what’s happening behind the scenes in Washington that no one hears about that has an enormous impact on public life and public service and public need.

MS. McCREARY: I’ll have to check that out.

RML: Does your background in computing find its way into your activities as a producer?

MS. McCREARY: Every day, yes.

CAMERON FLETCHER (CHF): Tell us how.

MS. McCREARY: I grew up from 8 years old doing theater, and by the time I was 15 I was running our local theater in Antioch, CA, which had just been given a grant by the state to build a state-of-the-art theater with a computerized lighting and sound board. I was like a kid in a candy shop! I got sent to Ithaca College to learn it.

I designed the most extraordinary sunrise for a show called The Boy Friend. It was a 5-minute sunrise because I had the computer. Before then, you had to move the dimmers with your hand and I would never have designed a 5-minute dimmer move because I wouldn’t sit there for 5 minutes to move it. With the computer, there were all these beautiful intricate moves and it was going to make this gorgeous show. I was very excited. On opening night, I walked into the tech room and turned on the computer and nothing happened. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t get it to work and no one could help me get it to work, so I had to run the entire show manually—and it was a very complicated show.

By the time I talked with my guidance counselors and my parents about what I was going to do in college, I had been doing theater for 8 or 9 years and I thought, ‘Well, if I’m going to tell stories I really need to learn this technology thing,’ so I got a computer science degree. I went to UCLA because they told me I could write my own major. I explained that the technology industry and the entertainment industry (I said “-theater” at the time) were converging and I wanted to write my own major. They said, “Of course, come down! You can write your own major.”

So I wrote a paper about how I wanted to do this dual major—and they basically said, “Well, you can’t cross the school of engineering and the school of fine arts. You can do a dual major as long as the two fields are in the same school.” And I said, “But that’s not the point.” Then the guidance counselor said to me, “Maybe you should just go into theater.” So I decided ‘Definitely I’m taking computer science!’ because I was a little annoyed that they wouldn’t encourage me to go into the tech side of things.

I was one of only four women in that major in the class of 1984. The computer science program was very new—we had breadboard circuits, we had to build our own computers. It was very rigorous training and I loved it. I had no idea I was going to love it so much.

RML: That’s a fantastic story. It’s all about determination, right?

MS. McCREARY: Yes. And I still did things like write software for the new motors that were running the lighting systems in the theater, so I was back and forth between the two areas.

I got a little sidetracked for a couple years when I teamed up with a couple of entrepreneurs who started a software company called CompuLaw, which did legal software. I’m a very good programmer and I wrote a B-tree library, because there were no libraries that you could call on in terms of programming at the time. We wrote this big system for time and billing and docketing for lawyers. I had about 20 employees when I was 20-something.

CHF: As a producer, I imagine you don’t get to do much in the way of software or programming any more?

MS. McCREARY: That’s right. I did with my first movie, in 1992 in Zimbabwe. Then I left CompuLaw (I kept my stock, thank goodness) and decided I was going to try to do theater. I found this play that became the movie Bopha! It took seven years to get it to the point where Paramount Pictures would finance it. I was told by everyone I talked to in the industry, “You’ve never produced, so they’re going to send a real producer to Zimbabwe to make this movie, they’re never going to send you.” I was petrified.

Later I realized I had been helping this guy who was writing the Movie Magic Budgeting and Scheduling Software, a DOS-based system; I would tell him, “Here are some bugs and here are some fixes.” I was deeply entrenched in working around all the issues in the first generations of the software, and I was doing budgeting and scheduling on a compact dual-disk computer.

When the head of production at Paramount Pictures called me in, he sat with me for about an hour and asked me a lot of questions about the budget and the schedule. He would say things like “What if we had 58 days instead of 60?” or “I don’t think you need 15 grips. How about 12?” I didn’t even know what a grip was, but I could do a control-F search for “grip” and change the 15 to a 12, and then I would give him a number—like, “We’ll save X thousands of dollars”—and he wrote down what I was saying. Then I left—and before I knew it we were sent off without another producer.

I found out that Paramount hadn’t yet been doing its budget or schedules on a computer, so they thought I was this megagenius because I could tell them in seconds what took them much longer to figure out. So I feel like my engineering brain really gave me that leg up on my first movie!

And, by the way, I knew how to produce theater, but I learned in school the kind of critical thinking that’s needed. To put together a software program you have to have skill in critical thinking and you need to know if you need to bring in other people. I say this a lot: Programming and producing are almost the same! Building software and writing code are very similar to coming up with a story you want to tell and bringing your team together and getting it onto the big screen or the little screen.

RML: This puts into perspective some of the committees you serve on. For example, I see that you’re the founder of the Producers Guild of America Motion Picture Technology Council. That suggests there are other folks who have similar interests or backgrounds. Or is this an indication of your hope to inspire that kind of inclination?

MS. McCREARY: There are over 8,000 producers in the Producers Guild. I’m currently one of the two presidents, and I don’t think there’s another producer in the guild with a computer science background. But everyone, especially in the last 5 years, has realized how much technology affects our ability both to tell stories to broader audiences and to streamline the process.

Our process is still not to the level of enterprise software in terms of running a film, which is what I would love. Thinking from my computer science/engineering brain, I know there are solutions that would make us more efficient and able to make movies and television for less money if we adopted them. But for us producers it requires so much of our time to simply get projects made that to also try to look at all those things at the same time becomes a bit unwieldy, and that’s why the Motion Picture Technology Council (MPTC) came about.

The first thing the MPTC did was, in 2009, an assessment series with the new digital cameras at the time. It was called the Camera Assessment Series (CAS) and we worked with the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) and various unions to pull it off. We had seven digital cameras and a film camera, and it was the first time such a comparative assessment had been done on an industrywide basis. We shot some very technically challenging scenes—day, night, water, fire—taking all the cameras through the exact same paces, and then made a presentation for the industry so people could see.

I was a big proponent of digital as long as we had the workflow to be able to process it, because that’s as important as capturing the image. So three years later, in 2012, we worked with the ASC on another assessment, called the Image Control Assessment Series (ICAS), to basically assess the workflows of the then-current digital cameras. It was only three years later, but only three of the seven digital cameras were still around, so we picked a new crop of digital cameras and assessed the workflows, which we also presented industrywide.

RML: I think most people when they think about technology and movies think of animation, but what you’re talking about is more technical, directed toward making the best use of visual technologies.

MS. McCREARY: Right, directed toward the art: How do we make our art better, how can we be more efficient in making the art, how do we make our images?

CHF: Is the MPTC different from the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, of which you’re also a member?

MS. McCREARY: SMPTE is more a standards board—they put together standards for different formats and make recommendations to the industry. They are heavy, heavy engineers.

The MPTC is made up of producers who can work with engineers to say, “These are the holes in our current system” or “This camera is okay but could you make it work with these lenses so that we can get a better look” or “It would be better for the operator to have this….” It brings together the end users, so to speak, and the people designing the systems.

RML: I notice your involvement with ClickStar.[1] Was ClickStar part of the evolution of your interest in things digital?

MS. McCREARY: Yes. ClickStar was my plea to our industry when the music industry was having a hard time in 2004. I was working with Intel at the time, helping them figure out how to get Intel-based systems into the digital effects world, which was basically dominated by Sun Microsystems with $40,000 computers.

I told Intel I was really nervous about what was happening with digital distribution of films. When I spoke to people at the studios, everyone was petrified—they didn’t want to be the first person to let a feature film go on the Internet. ‘What if we’re the one that kills our business?’

The first thing I really wanted to do with Intel was educate our business, so we called a bunch of what we would call tastemakers in the industry—think of the top eight people whose names you would know if you’re not in the business. In 2005 we brought them into a room and said, “We want to talk to you about the future of our business from the distribution standpoint.” We explained that people were going to look at movies on their phones (everyone rolled their eyes) and watch movies in one room and walk into another room—and people are going to start trying to steal the movies, so we should try to protect them.

One of the very smart actors in the room raised their hand and said, “I don’t really get this. Can you show me?” So we literally built a digital home in the Revelations office, which was in Santa Monica at the time. We built a living room, a kids’ room, and a neighbor’s house and we mocked up what we knew the new technology would be. We showed them that people would be downloading movies in their living room, the kids would be playing the same movie in their bedroom on their laptop or phone—and a neighbor, if this movie is not protected, could interrupt the stream and steal the movie. That was when everyone said, “Ohhhhh.”

We didn’t at first want to start a company, but from that meeting we thought, ‘Well, if anyone should start a digital distribution company for film, it should be a film company,’ so we teamed up with a few other big players in our business and with Intel, and started -ClickStar. Some people told us we were crazy—no one would download a movie to watch at home!

We were a little too early—it was 2005 when we launched and people were not streaming and downloading content as much as they are now—but we were the first. Before Netflix, we were there. It was great. I still have fond memories, and I feel like we helped the industry move forward a little faster than it might have otherwise.

RML: What was the approach to protecting the rights of the filmmakers? How did you prevent people from stealing movies?

MS. McCREARY: We adopted what was going on in the industry at the time, which was straight digital rights management (DRM) technology, and built it in. Until then no one had adopted DRM and implemented it, at least in terms of major motion pictures. We basically built the system that would follow it. At the time other companies, like CinemaNow and Movielink, were doing it, but ours was the first that was actor/producer driven, so we were giving better breaks to the filmmakers and talent that really are the face of the films, and having them be a part of it.

RML: That was pretty revolutionary for its time. Many of your predictions illustrated in that mock house seem to have materialized, no question about that.

MS. McCREARY: Yes, and now I don’t go a month or two without one of the original team telling me, “You knew this was happening!”

CHF: Where do you see yourself and Revelations, or any of your other professional undertakings, in about 5 years?

MS. McCREARY: Good question. I have two brains: what I want to do on the storytelling side and what I want to do on the technology side. In 5 years I would love to have been involved in helping design or create or just birth an enterprise-level system for the actual making of film and television content, something like an end-to-end enterprise-level digital platform for producers to manage a project, or 20 projects. That would be great.

I would also love to figure out a way to deal with the piracy issue in a way that honors people’s privacy but also allows the film industry to keep going, because we are losing billions of dollars a year to piracy and we need help.

RML: How about in terms of the activity involved in producing a film, how do you see that changing? If you had a crystal ball into the future of filmmaking, how do you see the mechanics changing, if at all?

MS. McCREARY: The tools are getting smaller, and the cameras are of higher quality. Also, now anyone who has access to an iPhone can make a movie. This allows people who might not have known they were filmmakers to start practicing at a much earlier age with storytelling and seeing what that’s like. So I’m really excited about the future because I think there are going to be more diverse storytellers out there. It used to be a very narrow funnel to get to be a filmmaker—you had to have very expensive equipment and hire giant crews—so people didn’t aspire to it, or they thought ‘I’m never going to be able do it,’ or they spent years trying to do it and couldn’t break through to the seven people who could say yes to them.

Now anyone can make a great story and put it up online and they might be the next great filmmaker. That to me is the most exciting thing. It comes with technology.

RML: Yes, but do you think technology adds cost or does it actually reduce the cost of the production of film?

MS. McCREARY: When we went to digital we found that it originally upped the cost a bit, but ultimately it cuts the cost. I went to Intel in the early 2000s and walked them through how we produce movies, and in any other industry our kind of blue collar way of doing it would have been subsumed by technology, and it hasn’t been yet. It’s the good thing about our industry because it is very people driven—there are 100 people working on a set.

I wouldn’t want to have technology intercede so that we don’t need people, but there are a lot of things—for example, just in terms of gathering information and sending it—that could be streamlined and we could save so much money. And we could prevent a lot of the piracy that happens during shooting if we had some enterprise-level solutions for filmmaking.

RML: I am curious to know whether you speak to college audiences about your activities or your industry? I imagine a lot of young people would find your story really compelling. Do you have time for that kind of activity?

MS. McCREARY: I definitely have time if anyone would ask. I just read a statistic the other day that less than 20 percent of college computer science majors are women. Less than 20 percent! I was horrified.

RML: In some of the sciences the number of women has grown dramatically—for example, in chemistry or biology it’s around 50 percent. But it could well be that in some fields like computer science it’s a much lower number.

MS. McCREARY: Yes, I thought it would be better than when I was in school.

RML: Do you have time to travel to IEEE meetings?

MS. McCREARY: Not since I’ve been president of the Producers Guild for the past 3 years. I’ve been woefully missing most of the trade meetings.

RML: I imagine you have a pretty full plate.

CHF: Turning back to your production company and its work, when you’re looking at “revealing truth,” what are some of your guiding lights? What are some of the criteria that you take into consideration when you’re looking for topics?

MS. McCREARY: We often get stories that have been told before, but if it’s a well-known story we look for a new take or a new perspective. For example, you could have made an argument that Nelson Mandela’s story had been told many times and quite well. We looked for another “in” to his story that might reveal or highlight something a little different, which happened to be about the South African rugby team.

And we are always looking for stories that we’ve never heard of. There are so many, especially American stories. I wish I had made Hidden Figures. There are so many amazing stories out there that you can’t believe no one has told them 100 times already.

CHF: Given the themes you’ve mentioned it sounds like an overarching theme for you and Revelations is social justice.

MS. McCREARY: I’ve never thought of it that way, but that is completely where my heart and soul are.

RML: Your description of your early experience with theater makes me wonder whether you feel any inclination to return to Broadway or live theater.

MS. McCREARY: There is nothing I enjoy more than sitting in a theater and the lights come down and the curtain comes up. I really love the medium I’m in right now, but I would consider theater if it was the right project.

We just did a show called The Story of Us for National Geographic that deals with the tribalism and “them and us” mentality that seems to be coming out in the world. The fact that we can do that kind of thing and get it on the air in 8 months makes me really love the medium of television and film in a way that is different from theater. A lot more people will see it.

RML: That’s true. Lori, as we near the end of this conversation, I want to ask whether there is a message that you, from the perspective of someone who has distinguished herself as a producer of movies, would like to convey to our readers? They include not only the NAE members but members of Congress, schools of engineering, and other individuals interested in science and technology.

MS. McCREARY: As I said, I love storytelling and technology, so I am of two minds. We need technology to help our industry. Before I got into the entertainment industry I thought, ‘Wow, when you see what we do with special effects and other things it seems like we are all state-of-the-art.’ But we can use help from really smart engineers and technologists. It would be a great team effort if we could come up with some goals to work on together, not only in distribution and antipiracy efforts but also in production and streamlining productions.

Another thing is, How can we each do something to make engineering more accessible to women and people of different backgrounds?

RML: That is a subject of great interest in the NAE: not only giving young people a clear understanding of what it means to be an engineer but also making science and technology understandable to the public.

MS. McCREARY: Yes. And there are so many amazing scientists and cosmologists and engineers all over the planet, we wondered, ‘Why is no one showcasing the great work they’re doing?’ They’re doing humanitarian work, work that is saving lives, work that makes our days easier through technology—and no one is showcasing them. That’s the goal of our show Through the Wormhole.

RML: I think people take for granted the fact that when you look at medicine today it makes medicine 20 or 30 years ago look Neanderthal. It’s really amazing, but people take it for granted. They just don’t perceive the changes that have occurred and the effects that science and engineering have had on these fields—and our way of life.

MS. McCREARY: Absolutely.

CHF: We so appreciate your taking this time to talk with us, Lori. It’s been a lot of fun and really interesting.

MS. McCREARY: It has been really fun. Not many people are as interested as you, or I don’t think I can speak as bluntly and clearly with people who don’t understand the engineering world. It’s lovely to be able to have this conversation with you.

RML: It means a lot to the members and to us as well. I think the science and engineering community find it very interesting to discover that there are members of our community who are involved in such disparate parts of our culture, because the typical engineer would never think of some of these activities. We really appreciate your taking the time today.

MS. McCREARY: Thank you so much. And Cameron, Morgan and I are going to be in DC on November 1st for the American Film Institute 100th Anniversary of Movies, 50th Anniversary of AFI, and the 20th anniversary of Revelations—I would love to see if you have time to stop in.

CHF: I can’t tell you how disappointed I am, ’though you may not agree with that once you hear why I can’t accept your invitation: I’ll be in Europe—Budapest, Bruges, Stuttgart….

MS. McCREARY: Very nice! That’s a good excuse. We’ll get you next time.

CHF: Please do.

RML: Thank you, Lori. We appreciate your taking the time.

CHF: Thanks, Lori.

MS. McCREARY: Thanks so much.

 

[1]  ClickStar was a broadband movie distribution company launched in 2006 by Freeman and McCreary. It was the first company to offer a legitimate motion picture download while the film was still playing in theaters.

 

About the Author:Lori McCreary is a film and television producer.