Director Aneesh Chaganty Brings the Small Screen to the Big Screen with “Searching”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Juan Sebastian Baron.

At 26, Aneesh Chaganty has already amassed an impressive list of credits. His most recent accolade is the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Feature Film Prize for his feature debut Searching (formally Search), which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, won the Audience Award in the NEXT category, and was acquired for worldwide distribution by Sony Pictures. Cut entirely on Adobe Premiere Pro alongside editors, friends, and fellow USC Film School alumni Will Merrick and Nick Johnson, Searching brings the small screen to the big screen—literally.

“It’s a thriller first and foremost, about a dad looking for his kid, but it’s also a commentary on the way we live our lives,” says Aneesh. “We turned a screen, which is something we look at every few minutes, into a cinematic canvas and created a thrilling, emotional and engaging experience.”

Searching tells the story of David Kim, a widower whose 16-year-old daughter Margot goes missing. While detectives search for Margot in the real world, David breaks into Margot’s laptop. Her online activity reveals Margot’s struggles after losing her mom—more than she ever let on in real life. The story unfolds over a series of texts, social media posts, video clips, and other every-day, on-screen applications.

Aneesh Chaganty, director of “Searching”, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Justin Bettman.

Aneesh and Co-writer Sev Ohanian originally pitched the idea of Searching to BAZELEVS Production as an 8-minute short. The company loved the idea, but wanted it produced as a full-length feature. Aneesh initially declined, but then came around after realizing the film’s potential—and the opportunity set before him.

Seven weeks before the cast began shooting, Aneesh, Will, and Nick began to edit the entire film in an ad-hoc pre-viz format, using computer screen shots and Aneesh’s face and voice as placeholders for all the live action components. The crew then used this to model their shots—from the actors’ eye lines to the angle of the camera set-ups. Live-action production took place over the course of 13 days.

“We built the entire screen in a wide frame so that we could screen shot a Facebook or FaceTime window, and then replace them with high-res shots later,” explains Will. The various punch-ins and cuts meant the team had to create an entirely new workflow. For this, they relied on Nesting in Premiere Pro.

“We created every action in a wide screen, put them into a nested sequence, and then key framed all the camera moves over the top,” says Nick. “This made things infinitely more complicated, because we had to make both temporal and spatial decisions. For example, if we wanted the mouse to get to an icon more slowly, we’d have to step into the nest, move the icon over a bit, make the mouse get there a bit slower, and then step out to adjust all the edits accordingly.”

The process took about a year of full-time editing to get just right. Once the live action portions were edited in Premiere Pro, all of the screens were recreated in Adobe Illustrator and then animated in Adobe After Effects. The editors used Dynamic Link to easily move visual effects from After Effects to Premiere Pro.

“In After Effects, we were able to use the continuous raster settings for all of the pre-comps,” says Nick. “That saved us because we were continuously rastering hundreds of Illustrator files for any given composition. We recreated each finder and browser window. Facebook was entirely drawn in Illustrator, so that was a huge function for us.”

And while the editing team admits that is likely not the way the continuous raster capability was meant to be used, it was a lifesaver for them.

“I don’t know of another set of programs or workflows that could have supported what we did using Premiere Pro, After Effects, and Illustrator,” says Nick. Both men have edited extensively using Premiere Pro in the past, and there was no question in their minds that they would use it for Searching — despite the studio initially suggesting another editing tool.

The team also brought in a colorist who, using After Effects, isolated and colored each piece of live action without coloring the entire screen. “White is white, and once the Illustrator screens were established, if you changed it at all it would be very noticeable,” says Nick. “The only way to really color the movie was with After Effects.”

Searching opened to great reviews, for both its storyline and editing, and will release in theaters on August 3, 2018. “This movie grew into something organic and emotional, and I think this is what differentiates it from others,” says Aneesh. “It should definitely be seen on the big screen.”