Without Dan Schrecker, Natalie Portman would have never become the black swan. And Darren Aronofsky would have never become a director.
"I would certainly not be in film," Aronofsky jokes as he grasps for an alternate ending. "I probably would have started Facebook."
It's typical to see career-long pairings of director and actors (Scorsese and De Niro), or directors and producers (the Coen Brothers). It's more rare to see a director cling to his effects man, as Aronofsky does with Schrecker (left), his friend since college who has done graphics, effects, title design, or post-production work on all of Aronofsky's films—Pi (which was filmed at Schrecker's mother's Upper West Side apartment), Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, and now, Black Swan, which opens nationwide Dec. 22, and has been nominated for both Golden Globe and SAG awards.
After more than two decades the two have a trust and artistic shorthand that serves their films. "I have a collaborator who understands me, and who I understand," Aronofsky tells Fast Company. "We have similar artistic ideas and a strong work ethic and are able to push each other because of that. Also, having a long-time friendship inspires us to help each other."
Schrecker adds, "Darren's always got the big picture in mind; I'm a little more of a ruminator and will sometimes get lost in the technical details of a shot. But there's always a constant back and forth of ideas, where we have to brainstorm creative solutions to fit his overall vision or my technical needs."
Schrecker, an animation major, met Aronofsky, an anthropology major, at Harvard in the late '80s. Aronofsky was writing papers. Schrecker was making short films. Animation "looked a lot more fun," Schrecker tells Fast Company, so Aronofsky switched, and the requisite drawing classes and started making films. After graduating in 1991, Aronofsky went off to the American Film Institute's directing program; Schrecker went to an NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program and formed effects company Amoeba Proteus (with another Harvard classmate Jeremy Dawson). But they always reconvened to work on film projects.
In 2008, Hollywood-based visual effects house Look Effects, which Schrecker had often hired for projects, tapped him to run its New York division and create a niche in film effects in a city where most effects houses cater to commercial production. Look's Brooklyn digs now occupy the old Amoeba office, which shares space with Aronofsky's Protozoa Pictures (run by yet another Harvard buddy Ari Handel).
[SPOILER ALERT! DON'T WANT TO HEAR ABOUT A CLIMACTIC SCENE? SKIP TO BELOW THE VIDEO.]
In 2009, the two started work on Black Swan, a psychological thriller set against a ballerina rivalry. Their collaboration coalesced in the scene where the character of Nina (Natalie Portman) transforms into a swan, a feat that took 10 months to design, shoot, and composite.
"It needed to be as realistic as possible," says Schrecker. "It always starts with design—how much of a swan does Nina become? We looked how a swan's anatomy had to correspond to a human body. We thought about swan legs, but she still had to dance. At one point we stretched Natalie's face into a bill shape, but it never quite looked like a swan. We tried a swan head on a human body, but without the long neck, it just looked like a duck. In the end, we figured that since it was a beautiful moment for Nina, she needed to stay beautiful. So we used her face, rendered the swan's wings in CGI, and used motion capture to transfer the movement from the arms to the wings. From there, it was a matter of finessing the nuances and timing of the shot, such as when her hands turn into feathers."
While Aronofsky begins prepping for The Wolverine, Schrecker has been expanding Look into content creation—the first effort being a short film, Despair, that Dawson produced and screened at New York's Museum of Modern Art at its New Photography 2010 exhibit in September. It was directed by fashion photographer Alex Prager, shot by Swan cinematographer Matthew Libatique, and stars Bryce Dallas Howard. But he's confident he'll work with Aronofsky again in the near future.
"When you're young, you fantasize about becoming successful and working on cool projects together," says Schrecker. "That we've been able to that is one of the things that makes this all so fun."
[Images courtesy Fox Searchlight]