Jesse Morrow has a confession to get off his chest. Or, um, someone else’s.
“I have reduced nipples,” Morrow admits. “That was a good one! That was for a feature film. It was for a guy who had his top off. He was lying on his back, and he felt like his nipples were too large. So we reduced them. We call it ‘nipple reduction.’”
For Jesse Morrow, keeping nipples at an aesthetically appealing size for the largest possible demographic is just part of his job. He does such extraordinary things in his guise as one of the Hollywood top visual effects artists known as “finishers.” Morrow has worked changing slight details onscreen in films like Concussion and This is the End, and is the secret weapon of choice for filmmakers like Seth Rogen and Darren Aronofsky to get their movies done and into theaters.
Morrow helped co-found and run the upstart digital finishing house, Instinctual, whose success recently precipitated a move from Culver City to a bigger space in the heart of Hollywood.
“We started doing color trailers, so we needed a theater with a big screen,” Morrow explains. “We have a 22-foot screen now, with digital projection, to do our color work. It’s pretty cool, but the best thing about coming back to Hollywood is… it’s in Hollywood!” Here, the film industry cinematic shape shifter tells his journey and shares secrets both technical and humorous.
Matt Diehl: If you had to describe to your grandmother what you do with your company, Instinctual, what would you say?
Jesse Morrow: I get this question from my mom every day: “Wait, what do you do again?” [laughs] Basically, Instinctual is what’s called a finishing house. We finish the color and put together the final thing that’s onscreen, and do any visual effects that come up in that process.
MD: Basically, you’re the cinematography after the cinematography, the special effects after the special effects, the makeup after the makeup, the horizon that the filmmakers forgot to shoot…
JM: That’s right. And we’re in L.A. We started out doing just visual effects for feature films – mostly cosmetic work. We’ve done all kinds of things like taking things off actors’ faces, and off their necks…
MD: Like chins?
JM: Yeah, lots of double chin removal. And thinning people – making them look thinner.
JM: Never done taller. [laughs] That is one request that has never been done.
MD: [laughs] So you’re a digital surgeon.
JM: Totally. That’s our core business. That’s the fun thing about this job – there’s always an interesting challenge that’ll come around to find you.
MD: I’m guessing that when you were growing up, shrinking a man’s nipples onscreen was not necessarily the thing you imagined yourself doing as a grownup. Where were you born?
JM: Boulder, Colorado. I lived there for most of my life.
MD: What was that like?
JM: Amazing. Super hippie-ish. There’s a big university there, so interesting things are going on culturally all the time. They call it “the Bubble” because of the green space around it. Boulder had an annual bike race called the Coors Classic. First, though, it was called the Red Zinger because it was sponsored by Celestial Seasonings – the tea company. Growing up, my next-door neighbor was Mo Siegel, who started Celestial Seasonings. I was friends with his kids, and my Dad would go with Mo and pick the natural wild herbs that they used in their tea. Mo would go to an area and wipe it clean of, say, mint. My Dad would see that and say things like, “Mo was here, taking all the mint again!” That’s Boulder.
MD: What did your parents do?
JM: My dad made hot tubs, which is a very Colorado thing to do. My dad won the Great American Beer Festival the third year they had it. It started in a church basement with ten guys who all made home brew; now, it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry. It was an interesting time. All these things started springing up in Colorado that became national trends: Home brew, microbrew, brew pubs, gourmet tea, Alfalfa’s market. It was the center of the health food culture and lifestyle.
MD: If they didn’t invent carob in Boulder…
JM: Let me tell you, we ate a lot of carob. And we hated it! It was horrible. But the great thing about Boulder was there were always things to do. I was 12 when I started snowboarding, mountain biking, snowboarding, and doing motocross. And guns! Lots of guns.
MD: I’ve never shot a gun.
JM: We did. We used to ride little motorcycles with .22 rifles to places in the middle of nowhere to shoot cans. I’d be in elementary school, and I’d be like, “Mom, I’m going shooting!” We’d go home after school and get the guns.
MD: What in that environment pulled you to film?
JM: Because we were so into skate and snowboard movies, we started making our own.
MD: It’s amazing how a crucial group of filmmakers, like Spike Jonze and Harmony Korine, started with skate movies.
JM: That’s right – that’s what Jackass came out of. It was the same for us – although they actually did get stuff into the magazines! The dream was to get into Transworld Snowboarding – or for us, High Times! That was the goal. In Colorado, we grew our own weed. We’d always take pictures of ourselves wearing ski masks with the marijuana buds. We’d submit it to High Times, and we never got in. We were always doing something fun, and it was always: “We need pics of this” or “What if they really love this video and use it?” We’d build a jump and shoot it with VHS camcorders.
MD: In my opinion, skate and snow sports films were the Roger Corman for a certain era of filmmakers, allowing them to artistically experiment and learn the basics of the craft.
JM: We’d just watch these videos and get so pumped up for the ski season. Every year, Warren Miller would show his latest film at the Boulder Theater. It’d be three nights, and we’d go to at least two, just getting pumped. Warren was so inspirational. His motto was, “If you’re not going to quit your job and become a ski bum – then when are you going to do it?” Everybody would be like, “This is the year I quit!”
MD: So you were a miscreant with creative impulses.
JM: I always had lots of, like, projects. My high-school buddies and I would get together and be like, “Let’s make a movie!” I discovered they had a VHS-to-VHS editing system in the library. We figured out that we could shoot our snowboard movies and actually edit them together – before basic editing could be done all on the camera itself!
MD: Were you the main auteur in the crew?
JM: The camera would be passed around: “Wouldn’t it be rad if I did this jump?” or “I’m going to do a new trick in the halfpipe.”
MD: Okay, you’re making home movies, growing and smoking pot all day…
JM: And not doing a lot of schoolwork. I went to the University of Kansas for two years, which was interesting. There were no mountains, so I came back. In fact, I got my start working on ski movies for [extreme sports auteur] Warren Miller in Boulder. When you’re a kid, you’re like, “I love snowboarding and skiing, and also like filming stuff.”
MD: How did you connect with an internationally known filmmaker like Warren Miller?
JM: He moved to Boulder from Long Beach, California. Warren was probably the only professional filmmaker living in Colorado in 1994 – and he was in my hometown! I was just about to graduate from college, so on Christmas break I went down every day to Warren Miller’s offices and sat in the lobby until someone would talk to me.
I’d sit with the receptionist all day, and she’d be like, “Sir, what are you waiting for?” And I’d say, “I’m waiting for my internship.” Then they’d say, “We don’t have any internships.” To which I’d respond, “Well, I’ll come back tomorrow – maybe you’ll have one then!”
MD: Did this all-in immersive approach pay off, or did they think you were a stalker?
JM: I did that for an entire week, and then I got to meet with this guy Brian. Finally, he gave me an internship, which turned into a low-paying job where I’d go out and shoot 16mm film behind-the-scenes stuff, all around Colorado, with the guys shooting the snow-sports documentaries. After my first year there, they realized I could edit, so I started doing a lot of editing, that’s how I got into this kind of thing. Then a guy moved in next door to where I was working who’d bought this “Smoke” system that you could do “Flame” on.
MD: How would you explain what those things are to a layperson?
JM: Smoke is a system that combines digital editing with digital compositing. That’s what seemed so exciting about Flame. If your imagination could think something up, Flame gave you tools that could actually realize it. It’s like Photoshop, Adobe After Effects, and an editing system all mixed into one. They actually stopped making Flame and rolled it into Smoke, but the terms are relatively interchangeable.
MD: Flame is a relatively new addition to the filmmakers’ toolbox.
JM: It came out around ’92.
MD: Which is around when the Avid digital editing system came up, too. That was the beginning of digital editing becoming the norm – but at the time, it was still largely very obscure and expensive.
JM: When Flame systems first came out, they weren’t doing any film work, because they couldn’t handle the size. Instead, there was lots of work for television. But then, after ’96 or so, Flame work in film became a thing. George Lucas heard a commercial house in San Francisco had a Flame system, so Lucasfilms went to check out what it could do. After that meeting, they bought three or four Flame machines and started using them on features.
MD: How did you learn this not just sophisticated, but, at the time, quite rare and expensive new, technology?
JM: Basically, I learned the system in Colorado. I just had access to it twenty-four hours a day, so I just taught myself how to use it over a year and a half. I was mostly working on really cheap local commercials, but also ski stuff for Warren Miller. They would shoot stock footage and sell it to corporations, and do infomercials for local resorts. We did this big thing for the L.A. Times every year – “Go to Mammoth!” “Go to Big Bear!” – where I’d cut together a lot of montages of skiing, hiking, mountain biking, and so on.
MD: Did you want to be an editor or a VFX artist then?
JM: I wanted to shoot film and be a DP! [laughs] I came to L.A. to take a class in Flame. Pretty soon, it was clear to the instructor and everyone else in the class that I knew more than he did! After the class, the teacher asked me for my number. When I got home off the plane, I had thirty-six messages offering me work! I turned around and never looked back. I’d made in two weeks what I’d made in a year in Colorado; after a couple months, I bought a house!
MD: 2017 is your twentieth anniversary as a filmmaking professional.
JM: I came to L.A. in the ‘90s and did a lot of commercials, television stuff, but not a lot of film work. Then Universal put in a Fire system, which was the mega-version of Smoke. They started doing digital trailers on it, so I started filling in up there. Then I got a job doing optical work on film that had been digitized and taken back to film. That’s how I got film-centric. Then I went to Technicolor in New York, where I lived for five years. My wife Michelle moved with me; that whole era was crazy. It started with that movie Pleasantville. That was one of the first fully digitally-finished movies, which was done at Kodak on Santa Monica. That was the project that made everybody think, “Holy shit! We can digitize the film and now can do anything color-wise, too!”
MD: How does a finishing house make money? Tell me about the business.
JM: The studios and producers don’t want to spend that money until the very end of the process.
MD: So they know what they need.
JM: Exactly. The cut’s relatively locked, so they feel like they can turn over these shots.
MD: How is the budget determined?
JM: Usually there’s no budget for this, or just a small one. What happens is that these shots come up at the end of the process. An actor or studio exec sees problems, and they want it fixed.
MD: From what I hear, those expenditures are rising.
JM: They’re doing a better job of budgeting for it, so that by the time they get to the end of a project, there’s actually still money to do it.
MD: I’ve heard budgets can balloon from $5 to $10 million.
JM: That’s because of all the prosthetic work. That’s the other thing. On Concussion, one of the main characters wore a bald cap. What happens with bald caps is that they don’t get glued down all the way, so you see the glue edge in the frame. It’s often a different color that doesn’t match the skin tone and starts rippling up, so we go in and fix it.
MD: How did they do all this before you existed?
JM: They didn’t. They spent more on makeup! Everything is compressed now: the shooting schedules are compressed, so the makeup people have less time. It’s so much more expensive for them to slow down production and prep to make things correct on camera.
MD: “We’ll fix it in post!”
JM: $2 million dollars for that, compared to the production budget, is actually pretty cheap. If you slow down production for a couple days, that can be millions of dollars per day.
MD: This is a wildly specific business you’re in.
JM: That’s the only way you can have a business that does any kind of visual effects in L.A. You have to have a niche thing that happens at the closest point to the end of a project…
MD: When they’re desperate.
JM: Where they can and will pay. We don’t get any tax subsidies being in L.A. All the other visual effects artists have left L.A. because of tax subsidies in London, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa… Canada is crazy, the amount of money they subsidize. Everywhere else has a tax subsidy now. Even New York – they have an amazing tax subsidy for post-production, so a lot of things are moving there. That’s the hardest part.
MD: How do you get a piece of that small pie?
JM: We have to be competitive in our pricing, and we’re really good at one thing. But we’re growing. Now we got all of Sony’s marketing and trailer work.
MD: So you often work on a trailer before the film it’s advertising is even finished?
JM: Yes. A finishing house will put together the trailer – we’ll cut it together at high-resolution and do color correction. We have to anticipate what will make the final cut of the film. We also do D.I. (digital intermitting), which is a color-correction process in prepping for playing the film in theatres. The client will say, “We want to throw a trailer in front of The Lego Movie, so let’s throw one together, but nothing is really done yet.” After that, it’s rush, rush, rush. What’s important is this movie is coming out that has the audience we want and we want our trailer to be on the front of it, so we have to finish something to be put in front of it today, because the movie comes out on Friday.
MD: Sounds like there’s something new to do all the time.
JM: Things come out of left field. But there’s also a repetitiveness to it. On This is the End, we came up with a look for Jonah Hill’s demon in the trailer and tests, but then it had to be rolled through the whole movie.
MD: Suddenly you became a huge line item.
JM: In that case, we were able to keep the costs low because of the approach we took. That’s always the challenge between how it looks and how much it costs.
MD: Where is the finishing business going next?
JM: There’s going to be a big explosion in television for these types of effects, now with Netflix and other places coming up with bigger budgets. There’s money now to do this type of work.
MD: What were some memorable cinematic transformations you had a hand in?
JM: On Passengers, there was the robotic bartender character. They wanted him to feel like he was plastic-y, like he hadn’t leapt across the uncanny valley. He had to look real, but kind of… off. The thing with that movie was the interiors and sets. They were so grandiose, but there were problems with the build – sometimes you could see in the dailies: wood screws visible, some plexiglass warping in a light bank, a couple shots where no one noticed the crew had tracked in mud. We took that mud off the floor! Once things like that come up, they don’t stop until it’s perfect.
MD: Any other memorable removals or visual mutations you remember?
JB: On The Wrestler, during production they tried to cover up a back tattoo of Mickey Rourke’s ex-wife with makeup, but it didn’t always work in some shots. We had to go into fifty or sixty shots to remove this tattoo. What’s funnier is while I was working on The Wrestler, one day I was in Tribeca and it was raining and I ran into somebody else’s umbrella. It was Mickey Rourke! I’m like, “You! Why did you get your wife tattooed on your back! I’ve spent the last three months removing her!” He thought that was hilarious and started cracking up. He was like, “Yeah, maybe that wasn’t the best life decision…” That was amazing!