Skip to content

Scrappin’ and Testin’

Around four months have passed since the last post, where I wrote about a new movie I’m making featuring fighter jets and a monster. What’s happened since then? Some fairly early VFX tests. Mostly a ton of screenplay revisions and self-critique. I’m gonna write about the last few months of Firewing (current working title), some stuff I learned, and the state of things today.

mast-slide_01d-0-00-00-0011

Houston takes a beating!

When I read one of the first Firewing drafts Wyatt and I had, it was super exciting. Here was this nebulous idea that was translated into something that had characters and relationships, progression and stakes. I was stoked because the movie became tangible in a way simply having an idea in your head wasn’t. Sure, it was around 20 pages, which is generally way too long for a short film. But it told a story, it felt thrilling, and it fulfilled an important aspect that I really wanted the movie to have: to look like it was all shot in one very long and dynamic take.

With the early script looking satisfactory, Jason and I moved on to the digital previsualization process. The script came to life before us with rough staging, camera movement, and timing. You can catch a few segments of it below.

 

It was exciting seeing what the film would look like as we put it together in a 3D environment. We completed 5 minutes of the film’s running-time in previz when a problem started to arise. Wanting a more complete picture of the film before making any decisions, I pushed ahead with Jason until we arrived to around the 8 minute mark of the previz, when the film’s problem became undeniably apparent:

There were only around two minutes of engaging content in the 8 minute running-time we had previsualized so far. The rest was cripplingly uninteresting.

This movie I was thrilled to make, ready to spend a great deal of money and the sink next year of my life on, that also included fighter jets and monsters, was boring. I felt a bit defeated but eager to find solutions. We scrapped the previz and we opened up the script for revisions. We need to make it shorter, I thought, so a new draft came out that was a couple of pages shorter, then a new draft came out with dialogue revisions, then a new draft with a different ending, then a new draft with the beginning taking place somewhere else, then several more drafts with locations shifting around. Twelve drafts of Firewing went by, and I didn’t feel any closer to having a script that solved our initial problem. It actually felt like the script was getting worse.

mast-slide_01a-0-00-00-00

A slide taken from the VFX presentation.

Questions ran through my mind. What was the cause? Were we trying to cram this huge story that simply couldn’t fit into the running time of a short? It didn’t seem like it. Our story was painfully simple, and all the plot points could probably fit in a paragraph. So what was the issue?

Despite letting go or changing various things in the revisions, the single shot concept remained in all them. This had big implications on how the story could unfold, implications that I was willfully ignoring for a long time. It meant that the whole script had to move in real-time, and we couldn’t really skip ahead. It meant that, barring any clever transitions, which we did have a few of, the camera is essentially locked to one character or location, and if we want to go somewhere else, we would have to do so in real-time. In the story, our main character flies a fighter jet from San Antonio to Houston. I had done months of research and I wanted the movie to be realistic and immersive, so the movie included all the real-world procedures necessary before take-off, things like strapping in and engine start-up, preflight checks, clearance to taxi, a slow taxi to the runway, clearance to take off, the process of taking off, the climb to altitude – all of those things happening, again, in real-time (though shortened as much as I could manage).

mast-slide_01c-0-00-00-00

Another slide from the VFX presentation – rendered with Element 3D.

Though those things may be interesting to aviation nuts, they were not moving the story forward or showing anything meaningful, and they were really boring as a result. Omitting those things would kill the sought-after realism of the movie in my mind, so the only way around it was to begin the movie after all these things had taken place. But that didn’t work because we needed the first few minutes to establish a relationship that was central to the story and the emotional context that it needed to work, something that was sort of impossible to do after she boards the jet.

It took around fifteen drafts written over the course of three-ish months to let go of the idea that it all needed to be in one shot. It was a hard idea to let go. From the outset, it was a very appetizing challenge that the small team was thrilled to tackle – taking this big concept and telling it in this seamless way would be a huge achievement, and the movie would be more immersive and engrossing to watch as a result. It was an extra layer of ambition on top of an already ambitious project, the icing on the cake. It became so important to us, this idea, that it took all that time to let it go. It became important to people outside the project too. I asked a couple of friends about their thoughts on giving it up, and the response was generally something like “no way, it would be so awesome to pull it off, there’s gotta be a way to do it somehow.” And so there was additional fuel for more revisions trying to make the idea work. But it never did. And when I started wondering if I should scrap the whole project and work on something else entirely, I finally made the decision to abandon the one shot. The thing I had considered a tenet of this project ended up being unnecessary.

The draft that was written shortly after that decision was a big improvement. Gone were the minutes filled with unavoidable aviation procedure or idle travel time, replaced now by stuff that advances the story. The new draft includes a back-and-forth between two people’s situations that play off of each other. The tension builds and it doesn’t slow down. And the best part – the movie’s running time got cut in half. There’s a saying among writers that, at certain times, it becomes necessary to “kill your darlings,” the darlings being sentences, characters, scenes, chapters, elements that you’ve become attached to but aren’t working out in the grand scheme of things anymore. I’d say that’s the most succinct way of putting the development of the movie so far. The last few months were spent killing a rather large darlin’.

zatoyo_swim_2-1

The aquatic monster in its underwater swimming pose.

So I’m back to being excited about the movie I’m working on again, after the growing pains of writing a decent script. In that time, some cool preproduction stuff happened as well – we commissioned an amazing creature designer who works in zbrush to build the movie’s monster, which you can see above and below. She’s called ATOYO.

zsadama_color_tests

Atoyo is only barely evolved to walk on land.

We’ve started preliminary testing with 3D integration of our to-scale digital fighter jet, the relatively new and soon-to-be ubiquitous F-35, with live-action footage. A very early test with shoddy motion tracking can be seen below.

 

And we’ve started to experiment with the scale of our (untextured and clay-like) monster, trying to find a size that feels right when tracked and mixed into live-action footage, which you can see below. Again, early stuff. We’re just getting a feel for things.

 

What’s next? Jason and I will be building the previsualization of the film based on the new and improved screenplay. As the movie comes together in this way, some additional changes and decisions will be made to reach the ultimate goal of being able to watch the previz beginning-to-end and feel satisfied with the choices we’ve made. After the previz, we move on to the pre-light, which is the process of taking the previz and lighting the scenes using physically-based rendering, which mimics the way light behaves in real life and produces photo-real results – crucial for developing the final look and feel of the CGI in the movie, which there is quite a bit of. The pre-light also serves to inform Jason on real-world choices and solutions he has to make for practically lighting our live-action composite shots so they end up looking right. After that, the more traditional preproduction aspects come into play, like casting, building the sets, rehearsal, and all that jazz.

The future with this thing is looking good today. Stay tuned.

Advertisements

Firewing

My next short film may or may not be called Firewing. I may be talking about it a lot on the good ‘ol blog in the next few months, or I may leave this place a dark and echoey chamber as it has dutifully been for the last couple of years. Hopefully, we get the former.

promo_image_1a

Firewing is most easily described as a giant monster movie. In the short, we follow a USAF fighter pilot and mother as she’s called to defend her hometown against a giant creature. As she battles in the skies, her daughter tries to escape on the ground. The short has scenes featuring a computer-generated monster, destruction on a city-wide scale, a realistic, fully-realized fighter jet comprised of a blend of both practical and computer-generated geometry, among other things. To tie it all together, the movie will also be made to look like one uninterrupted take from the beginning to the end of its 15 minute running time.

I’m writing about it months before actors are cast, locations are secured, things are built, and the gears of production begin turning because I’m both super excited and scared about it in these early stages. So I’m gonna write. The scope of the project is very much beyond anything I’m experienced with. The cinematography and VFX, for instance, are some of the most challenging aspects of this movie because of all the minute ways in which these two concepts interact with and rely on each other throughout the running time. Those two things, in a larger network of other things, build a lot of interesting moments in the movie. There are other challenges, logistics, questions, many of them that’ll be explored later in the process. I thought a good while about whether the kind of commitment required to make all of those things a reality would be truly worth it or not. My answer to that was quick and clear – Yes. Hell yes.

Eventually, I took a breath and dived into preproduction. Thankfully, a small group of good friends and collaborators have joined me on this quest. I’ve been on a daily mission to bring this movie to life since. I’m excited to say that, barring any unforeseen disaster, Firewing will slowly but surely be a reality by around this time next year.

I’m very stoked about it. This is my first movie in two years. It was a concept I always talked about but never wrote. Eventually, my good friend Wyatt put a story down on paper, and gave it all purpose and context and humanity. So I have him to thank for getting this all started.

Firewing’s coming. More on it soon.

 

 

 

 

A Farewell To 2015

It seems that all of my attempts to structure the blog or declare “the next five blog posts will be about this” result in just a couple of meager efforts, followed by dead silence for the next two or four or sixteen months. You’d think I’d learn the obvious lesson here when it happens for the umpteenth time, but I think I forget every now and then; the lesson being: this thing works best as an unorganized collection of thoughts, ramblings, news, and behind-the-scenes posts. My apprehension about posting ‘new stuff’ grows exponentially when said ‘new stuff’ has to abide by some arbitrary theme that two-month-ago me thought was a good idea; proving that, at least currently, my disposition is changing on a monthly basis. Hooray, early-twenties. Never failing to be the most upheaving series of years in my life.

So, I won’t be doing individual write-ups about the seven short films, two feature films, one VFX test, and eight TV episodes I played important roles in during my sixteen-month-long absence from the blogosphere like I said I was going to. What I’ll do for now is link you to my newest showreel (fun fact: the last one was released before this blog existed!), which conveniently shows you a bite-sized, curated slice of that stuff I did. The icing. The bock. The most marketable stuff that I could squeeze into a yoga-pants-tight two-minute running time. So here you go, enjoy:

 

Happy New Year and stay tuned for my plans and ideas for the 2016. It’s going to be quite exciting indeed.

 

The Tunnel

Time to stretch the memory muscles. We’re going back to the Fall 2014 semester, to the first project that kicked it off: The Tunnel – my first foray into the world of real, honest-to-god film; the physical strips of magic stuff that captures an image chemically rather than digitally. The Narrative Production class at the University had everyone shoot a short on film as the second assignment, providing the camera and gear for short but not the film, which we bought ourselves. And boy, the experience of shooting on traditional film remains to be one of the most unique set of challenges I’ve learned about so far, which I think contributed to The Tunnel being a little different compared to my other shorts – but more on that in a bit.

You can watch The Tunnel here:

It’s a dying medium, this film stuff, and working with it while it’s still around has always been a dream for me along with most filmmakers. Despite how expensive and uniquely demanding the medium is, 35mm film was (and still is) the golden visual standard to what all movies, for most of the history of the movie, are held to. For the class we used the 16mm size, which is smaller, cheaper, and carries less “resolution” than the cinematic 35mm standard (in laymen’s terms: granier). To make the project a little more complicated (and even cheaper), we used black-and-white “reversal” film, which is essentially the cheapest version of 16mm. And it looks pretty awful, mostly due to that type of film’s poor dynamic range response. Finally, the camera we used was a Bolex H-16. Yes, it’s as ancient as it looks. Instead of being powered by batteries, you had to crank it several times to wind up the internal motor, which was then capable of shooting for 30-second intervals on its own before requiring more cranking. Hooray.

This camera could document a war. In fact, it has several times.

No batteries, all metal design, practically indestructible, three different lenses on it at once; seems to me like the ultimate documentary camera.

The camera was both wonderful and terrible to use. You see all the endearing inventiveness of the analog era on display. Don’t want to wait for lens changes? Just have three of them on there at all time. Can’t edit your footage? There’s a built-in fader you can operate during a take. No batteries? You’re the battery. If you were shooting in direct sunlight, you had to be careful not to let too much light into the viewfinder, since that could over expose the frame you’re on in the camera. The viewfinder itself was horrible. It was prism-based (what?) so you only saw a fraction of the light hitting the film. The result was this often very dark image which was almost impossible to see through past f/16. Focusing was a challenge. The degrading C-mount lenses looked (and behaved) like little toys. The shutter speed control is actually your framerate/film speed control. You can’t adjust your shutter without speeding up or slowing down your footage. And, of course, the ISO is baked onto the particular roll of film you’re using. Finally, you have to know how to use a lightmeter, because the camera ain’t gonna tell you what exposure settings you need to be at.

Film likes to be cold. Make sure it heats back up before using.

Film stores better in the cold, so we kept it in the fridge. Make sure it warms back up before using!

So, there’s all that plus the more global limitations of shooting on film: no playback of what you just recorded, no real idea of what you just recorded other than what you (hopefully) wrote down when you finished recording, and a very limited amount of film, which basically means “don’t fuck up.” And since the camera was so old, it’s easy to overlook some exposure setting and haphazardly shoot a take that’s just too bright or dark. And it’s a permanent medium, you’re not getting that part of your film back, it’s gone. So film, by its nature, demands you treat it with a sort of “perfectionist” approach that shooting digital simply does not teach you. With film you have to plan each and every take, and make positive that each and every take is what you want it because the moment the record button is pushed, and the gears of the camera rattle the film through the gate, you are quite literally using up money. And in that respect, it becomes pretty cool to see how you, as a filmmaker, react to that kind of demand and pressure.

After shooting a test 100ft roll of 16mm film (which equates to two minutes, roughly) at the park, we got two rolls to shoot our short film project. The restrictions were similar to the class I took the semester prior, no dialogue and a max running time of roughly two minutes. I had a few ideas, but this time, unlike the class prior, all of our stories were presented and workshopped in the class. I presented three ideas, which I still have on my iPhone notes app: a collection of ‘documentary’ footage about some virulent disease spreading through campus and the ensuing military quarantine, a guy that has to cross a foreboding tunnel and encounters some dark force within it, and a girl driving to a dinner party that gets a blown-out tire and has to change it before continuing on.

Doing camera tests in the park, under some heavy-ass instagram filter for some reason.

Doing some glamorous camera tests in the park, under some heavy-ass instagram filters.

I ended up picking the tunnel idea because it was the only one out of three that had an existing location close to where I lived, and so it was a little easier to visualize. In hindsight, I would have much rather done the other two ideas for a variety of reasons. The quarantine idea would just been tons of fun, and would have taken a very cool aesthetic with the whole black-and-white 60s film look. It would have resembled some classified, authentic archival footage or some shit. There were going to be hazmat suit people, helicopters, grotesque biological transformations. It was going to be dope. There was going to be some really striking imagery. And the flat tire idea would have given me a much better opportunity to tell a story and convey an arc, as well as measure how well I can sell a day-in-the-life type film. It would have been an stripped down, relatable story that I was going to rigorously apply structure and theory to make a meaningful little short out of. The class wasn’t really sold on the quarantine idea, but liked the tunnel and the tire changing ideas. And for some reason, I went with this tunnel shit. Oh well.

The reason The Tunnel ended up being very vague and unexciting was because it simply wasn’t thought out. When it came to the actual shooting day, I still didn’t have much beyond the initial idea. I had rough shot list, but never quite settled on what the main character was actually going to encounter in that dark place. And since the planning was so haphazard, I didn’t have an actor. I called friends to play the characters an hour before shooting. No crew except me (so much for film forcing you to plan things), and in that sense, I suppose The Tunnel was surprisingly coherent. It really was the definition of winging it. We shot it sequentially, because I knew what happens at the beginning, more or less. But when it came time to build the suspense, in the tunnel, I don’t know, more shots of him walking? Scary noises? Oh wait let’s have the cyclist lady be lying further up the tunnel and imply some paranormal force got her. What paranormal force? What did it do to her? Why is it there? What does it look like? What does it have to do with the main character? I had no idea.

More shots of scared Wyatt looking at things. I think I settled on a Smoke Monster-esque type thing coalescing around her body, and a scary message written out in blood on the wall for post while shooting. At that point, we were running low on my last roll of film so I just told Wyatt to run out and close the piece on an image of the tunnel closing and swallowing him in there. Chilling? Sure, whatever. We wrapped after an hour of shooting in a parking garage, and the next day the footage was sent off to get developed and scanned.

The madness of coloring begins.

The madness of coloring in After Effects begins.

By that point, I knew that The Tunnel wasn’t going to be special. What I thought was going to be a cool horror piece ended up being too rushed and too poorly thought out to mean much. But, I wanted my only attempt at film to be unique to the class in some way, so at that point there was the (now hilarious) decision to digitally recolor, shot by shot, my 16mm black-and-white film in it’s entirety. And that’s when the fun started. We got the footage back, and for 4 long days, I rotoscoped elements in every shot of the movie so that I could artificially add color back into the image. Days of drawing and mainting shapes against the grass, clothes, skin, sky, and all the other shit that has color in a movie (i.e. everything). Podcasts, coffee, and rotoscoping. For a short film that was of dubious quality to begin with.

Then an important part of the film, the shot where we reveal the bloodied message on the wall and the smoke monster villain, was too dark to see shit. I couldn’t add VFX of a bloody message to a wall you can’t even see. Or a dark smoke monster. So the visual payoff, to further confuse the people watching who are already wondering what the hell is going on, was instead added to the shot of Molly, the recently deceased cyclist, by way of VFX’ing her head to look like some life-sized mannequin. It was the only thing I could think of that would be unsettling and add some kind of visual horror to it. The reality is, the shot’s too dark and grainy and fast to really tell what it was. So after the sound was designed and mixed, The Tunnel was finished.

When the short eventually screened to the small class, people thought the color was cool and the atmosphere was good. I did work a bit on the sound design and mix. As for the rest, well yeah. It wasn’t great. But I knew that from the beginning. I wasn’t in familiar territory I think, and the the way I approached the short reflected that. I was also still learning how the politics of class workshops worked as well, which I understand is a divisive issue in my program between my film friends. Some people hate it, others think it helps to a degree. It’s all fairly subjective, and everybody’s experience is so varied that I can’t really come to a consensus on it, but I will say I think you just have to take from class workshops what you can. And try to be as good of a communicator as possible. A lot of people will give you feedback on your ideas and maybe a handful of those people will have some helpful stuff to add. I don’t know. Maybe you don’t want to woo a bunch of strangers in a room and you just wanna make a godamned movie already. Maybe this is training for the eventual day you’ll have to woo a bunch of strangers in a room in order to make your movie. Maybe you acknowledge that but don’t understand why we need some practice pitch in order to be granted the privilege to direct our own film in the film class we paid for in film school where we are supposed to be learning about the craft. I digress, that’s a rant for another post.

I think I was able to shake it off fairly quickly, call it a learning experience, and move on. After all, we were still very much learning how to shoot on this crazy film stuff, and I wasn’t sure how a beginner black-and-white film could end up being great anyways. Well I was wrong. In another section of the same class, my friend Mark Hewitt was creating a killer short that I had the pleasure of helping on. You can peep that one right below:

Lord Peter ended up being my favorite 2nd project from that class that, to me, uses all the restrictions and tools that the class gives you to good effect and creatively tells a good story while doing it. I ended up operating the camera during the part in the film that takes place in the dark castle interior, which was a parking garage, and doing some minimal VFX work which you can see below.

The most CGI in the short was the shot above, where we needed a picture of a castle to look like it was alive and like we shot it with the same camera. I faked movement with the tree branches and birds, and I wanted to have the reflection of the water moving too but I think I was too short on time. In the end, I thought the shot blended fairly well in the edit after some heavy grading to match that tricky 16mm reversal grain and stock. Other shots include the shot with Lord Peter and the cat approaching from the gate, which had a visible car parked behind it. It needed to be over-exposed and painted out. Finally, there was the troll melting, and two digital pick-up shots which needed to look identical to the original film stock. The digital shots ended up sneaking in pretty well, although on a closer look now I can see some details in them that can be improved on.

The most fun I had on Lord Peter was shooting the underground sequence in my parking garage, trying to light the scene with iphones, car headlights, and portable LED arrays. It was a pretty zero budget/time shoot. I was operating a different film camera from the Bolex I used, since Mark was in another section of the class, called the CP-16. It was still old, but a lot more familiar and battery-powered. Somehow, we didn’t catch a car in the footage, and the darkness in garage combined with all the little reflections of light from the cars in the distance really made it look like a dark cavernous castle. I think we shot wide open and prayed the film would come back at least somewhat exposed. We were definitely very relieved when the footage came back okay. It’s pretty funny remembering how ragtag the parking lot shoot felt versus how it turned out in the final product. The troll character was just a dude in a mask with basketball shorts on and a cape but hey, the final product rocked and it’s still shown in the class to this day. On some exemplary status shit. So that’s cool!

Hey, if the film isn't good, at least the marketing is, heh.

And if the film isn’t good, at least the marketing is. Heh.

So that was The Tunnel, alongside Lord Peter, as my first foray into film work since the unofficial blog sabbatical. Hopefully that covers the extent of my experience with the two projects and all of their filminess. In the next post, we’ll be moving right along the timeline to my experiences with the third and final project in the class, as well as a few related projects which ended up being just as important.

I hope you enjoyed the post, whoever you are. It was a lot of words I just wrote. Congrats for reading it. I’ve got some other stuff to catch up on in the meantime.

Stay groovy.

16 Months Later

Hello blog. I am alive. It appears that I have taken an unannounced 16-month-long sabbatical (I won’t be counting the post in January) from the blog. I’d like to think that, in my long absence from writing stuff on the internet, while also enduring the darkest year of my life so far, I’ve accomplished some filmic feats worth blogging about.

The last year has been different for me. I didn’t make any short films or lead any projects, save for a couple of class projects that I feel were too restricted by their specific rules to call them anything other than exercises. What ended up filling my year of filmwork instead was helping out on many films, led by other students, acquaintances, and good friends. Instead of an exploration of self-expression through the medium, this year has been an exploration of collaboration, teamwork, and being as much of a positive force in my role in whatever short film I was working on as I could be. Every film was vastly different from the last, and the diversity between the projects in subject matter, collaborators, budget, tools, and procedure was very useful in gaining knowledge about all the different ways people approach filmmaking. Even the more unenjoyable projects offered their own valuable insights (usually what not to do).

So despite no shorts, it’s been a productive and valuable year for me. It would be an extravagantly long post if I was going to talk about it all right now, so what I will do instead in the coming weeks is make several blog posts specific to the projects I worked on. In these posts, I’ll go into detail about my experiences with the project, what I learned, what I struggled with, any revelations major or minor, and anything else that might be useful to blog about. There will be lots of juicy content, pictures, VFX breakdowns, and other things of that nature for anyone interested. I’ll be posting these in order of when I did them until we are finally caught up to the present day.

A year ago, I wouldn’t have believed that things were going to be okay. I didn’t think I’d have accomplished much at all by this point. Now, standing on the other side of what feels like the Mariana Trench, I can safely say that things are going to be more than okay, or good: they’re going to be great.

I’m looking forward to getting back into the groove of writing and sharing my filmtastic experience with y’all. It’s been much too long, and there is much to talk about and digest.

Stay tuned!

Test Screen

shot_01_ASSEMBLY (0-00-17-18)

WIP still of a 120-second shot for a new short. More to come.

The Summer Update – (It’s Been Too Long Edition)

So the last post was five months ago and I am deeply behind on this blog business; so behind, actually, that I created and released my first short film since Spaceship Over McAllen without any warning, behind-the-scenes stuff, or blog-related updates (blupdates?). There’s a lot to talk about there, but this semester of college was so action-packed that there’s even more cool film-related things going on than the release of IN TRANSIT. So in this entry, we’ll be playing catch-up. Buckle up. And wear your favorite Hawaiian shirt. Because summer mode is ON.

Cue fun summer grooves.

 

IN TRANSIT

Before I talk about it, give it a watch with HD on, fullscreen, and the audio turned up.

 

So there it is. Let’s talk about it!

The film class I took this semester was exciting because it was the first film class where some sort of actual production was involved, though it was still an intro class so everything was toned down a few notches. We had three projects to do throughout the time in class; the first two were photography-based projects, and the last was a real short film, albeit with restrictions. The restrictions were to create a short film with sound design but no dialogue, and it had to be between two and five minutes long. The prompt also stated that the film had to surround a strong emotion we felt.

Posted on the night we got the prompt. The fun begins.

Posted on the night we got the prompt. The fun begins.

Having sort of rushed the first two projects in the class, I really wanted this one to be truly exceptional. I wanted to do something no other student would probably do, and go above and beyond what would be a traditional story in a traditional setting. So one of the first ideas that defined In Transit was the choice to have it take place in the future. With the film taking place in the future, I had the opportunity to create some truly special visual moments, something I consider a trademark of sorts in my filmmaking philosophy.

As more ideas accreted in my head, I knew that this film had to be more personal than anything I’ve made before. Since my past shorts were either campy comedies, visual effect pieces, or concept demos, I felt it was time to make a serious, character-driven piece. Coming out of a rather dark and isolated first semester in Austin, emotionally, I sought to see how I could translate those feelings and emotion into the project along with themes of transition, despair, and a longing to make some sort of impact on the world.

The goal then was for the film to communicate these themes and emotions effectively in its future setting, even if I had to resort to more abstract storytelling. If you view the script, you can see how the themes manifested in the plot: the main character being this troubled individual who feels contempt towards the society he lives in, searching for some otherworldly peace, and ultimately taking his own life. Along with the emotional tenets of the film, I also found that the future setting allowed the interesting opportunity to comment on modern-day culture, hyperbolized into the future.

The first promotional image for In Transit.

The first promotional image for In Transit.

With the script finished in a couple of days, production started immediately. The first two minutes or so of In Transit were designed to be one continuous take. Due to issues regarding locations, I ended up having to join three shots in two different locations as seamlessly as possible to create the illusion I needed. The first thing we shot was the opening reveal of the city, and our main character’s long, lonely walk through a small crowd of people absorbed with their hand-devices. For the shot, I had about twelve or so extras on hand as the pedestrians. We practiced the 50-second walk and some of the small interactions (like bumping into each other) on a quiet sidewalk on campus. After that, we hit the streets and it did for real; 17 times, in 4 different locations in the city. With 17 takes of the same walk, I had a lot of variety to choose from, and ended up choosing the take where I thought most of the elements were the strongest. You can see a fun little montage of all the takes below. Shot on a 5D mk II (Thanks Jean Paul!)

After that short scene was shot, it went immediately into post, taking about five days to finish. At around that point, I shot the car stuff, apartment interiors, and the other 50-second take that goes on before the main character gets to the street (the elevator ride). The elevator ride was then joined with the street take, resulting in the first two minutes of the film. It was about two-and-a-half weeks before most of the film was in a rough stage of completion, but the critical final act of the movie (the climactic car flying scene to the building and the swelling soundtrack) was still missing. The final scene needed more CG work than all the scenes before it combined. And I only had a week left before the project was due. Enter stress mode.

The rough timeline in Adobe Premiere for In Transit

The rough timeline in Adobe Premiere for In Transit

For around six days, I probably spent anywhere from 12-16 hours a day working on the VFX so it would be done before the due date. Among the more challenging shots was the fully-CG shot of the car’s main jet firing, and all of the fully-CG exteriors of Austin in the future. The jet-firing shot was a particularly challenging one because my aging copy of 3DS Max along with the aging VRay renderer (which I still don’t know how to use too well) was giving me annoying issues. Besides taking way too long to render, the final render of the car lifting off had a shadow that was somehow white instead of black, and no street running underneath it. I then had to carefully mess with the alpha channels inside of After Effects to turn the shadow back to its normal color, and create the highway running along underneath the car inside of AE from scratch. The solution was a 2D road texture; switched to a 3D layer, perspective-matched following the 3D camera movement, motion-tiled to repeat twenty or so times (mind-you a very inefficient way to do it, render-wise), and then finally keyframing the z-position until it looked like the car was going very fast. With the road running underneath the car, and the car looking halfway decent, the last step was adding a few particles coming out of the jet (again inside of AE) and color grading it so it meshed well with the other footage. The result was okay.

A total of four hours to render, and it didn't even come out remotely close to looking good afterwards.

A total of four hours to render, and it required more work to fix the rendering mistakes than it took to create the damned animation in the first place.

The next big CG shot (the camera dollying to the left as the car flies up towards the sky) was something I’m less proud of, but had to happen as-is due to time constraints and more issues with VRay; mainly not getting the the daylight lighting system to properly light the car. I had to render it with incorrect lighting and as a result, the car looks very out of place. Couple that with background footage that lost a lot of detail to stabilization (I shot all my live action backgrounds out of a moving car on the highway), and some less than ideal compositing for the buildings in the background, and the shot ended up looking barely passable compared to other shots. Oh well, you learn from your mistakes.

The few CG shots that were taken from an aerial perspective were possible thanks to Google Earth. GE, very fortunately had the city of Austin modeled entirely in 3D, allowing for virtually any camera perspective of the city. Making sure the quality settings inside of GE were turned all the way up, a simple screengrab set up the foundation for the shot. Small touch-ups, like doing a box blur of about 0.5, and basic color correction removes the artificial feel of the city and gets rid of any aliasing issues in the screengrab. After that, it was as simple as inserting the futuristic buildings via the extremely handy future city 3D model pack via Element 3D, matching lighting conditions, and doing final coloring work so it looks right. That alone would have sold the shot, but the flying cars as a particle system in Trapcode’s Particular were added to further sell the future setting.

The rest of the VFX were pretty basic stuff, mostly doing a lot of tracking and inserting. Track and insert a screen here, track and insert a building, track and insert some graffiti, that was pretty much it for the other shots. Take a look at the VFX breakdown for some of the shots of In Transit to see how they were made, with an awesome accompanying musical piece!

Some other notable things about creating this short: it was my first time shooting and working with a Canon 5D (the mk. II specifically). Coming from doing VFX work mostly on t3i footage, the 5D mkII is a vast improvement in many ways you don’t notice until you start playing around with the footage. The color information on the 5D is miles ahead of the T3i, understandably as both cameras carry pretty different price tags (and data rates; CF cards will always outperform SD card data rates). But the 5D seriously allows you much more flexibility in coloring, and doing VFX that depends a lot on color data that the camera gives, like chroma keying, grading, color swapping or any sort of detailed color work. While the dynamic range wasn’t the nicest, and most of the sky in the footage got blown out, it still held its own when it needed to.

Now, I own a Blackmagic Cinema Camera that shoots in 10-bit ProRes and carries huge, cinematic latitude. The color information surpasses even the 5D’s by orders of magnitude. Why did I use a DSLR instead? It came down to sensor size, plain and simple. The 5D’s massive full-frame sensor produces a field-of-view that literally dwarfs that of the BMCC’s. When going for that run-and-gun, wide documentary look I wanted for In Transit, the BMCC just did not cut it. The crop factor is crippling, to the point where my options for some shots, using the BMCC, were to either knock down some walls so I had enough space to stand back and frame my shots correctly, or resort to using my Rokinon 8mm fisheye and it’s bad distortion to get things to fit inside the frame. For big, well-prepared productions, the BMCC is a fantastic camera, especially with a good amount of lens options to handle that epic crop factor. But for In Transit, a no-budget run-and-gun shoot which required shots in very small, cramped spaces, it just couldn’t be done. It helps that the 5D’s form factor is very workable, its small and light. The BMCC is large, bulky, heavy, and requires another heavy external battery for shoots lasting longer than an hour. Again, large obstacles for this type of production.

It’s important to note that In Transit went through a few cuts before settling on the final version on Vimeo and YouTube. The earliest cut that was first turned in had a good, but tacky electronic song that served as the music for the finale. While certainly epic and fitting, I decided to refrain from getting into copyright trouble, and having more control over the music through an original score worked better. Returning as the premier music producer and electronic music master was none other than Axphite, or Phillip Jordan. Take a look at his soundcloud (Heartstopper is my personal fav). Anyways, the version turned in, and eventually screened on the last day of class, was also lacking the last scene after the title with several voices commenting on what happened. I felt the movie was incomplete without some sort of resolution addressing the main character’s pretty morally dubious actions, and bring in a sort of political element I wanted to introduce to the viewer. One of the goals with the story was to create some kind of conversation, if only mentally, about what the main character ends up doing, and his arc throughout the film.

16268d8c5fb4903cdb90f3b113692f93

When In Transit was finally released, it got a pretty impressive amount of exposure. I was expecting a few hundred views on the first day, not a couple thousand, so that really blew my mind. It couldn’t have gotten the exposure without the help of so many of my friends who shared it on Facebook and showed some love. So thank you guys for that. I really do feel proud of In Transit, I feel like I was able to accomplish something I’m proud of in a short amount of time, but at the same time I am so ready to move on and make something else without the constraints of a class project, like the no dialogue rule among other things. I’m ready to make something bigger and better than In Transit, and getting the help of all the really talented folk I’ve befriended so far in film school at UT. Exciting things are happening, and I can’t wait to tell you about them.

So Let’s Tell You About These Exciting Things

With In Transit completed, what does the future look like for Blulight Studios? It looks a little something like this:

An exciting script is on the way.

The oh-so-glamorous process of writing screenplays.

I’m currently writing out a script! If everything goes right in the next few months, (and I’ll actually be updating the ‘ol blogasauras rex more frequently now) this short film should enter production sometime at the end of summer. I’d love to get into details about what it actually is, but it’s so incomplete at this point that I’d rather not pull another entry like the last one where I talked about getting all excited about an idea but it never turned into much else. Honestly though, that was more because the idea I talked about in the last blog entry ended up being a short film that would need some pretty massive production resources that I’d like to wait on to make until later in the future. The current script is being written with production during school in mind, so feasibility shouldn’t be an issue. Also it has a superhero in it. Excited now? Hopefully. I know I am.

So what else is going on? It should definitely be mentioned that I DP’d and am currently editing a wonderful short written and directed by the talented Mark Hewitt. We went all the way over to Abilene, Texas to shoot this bad boy, and there’s a lot to talk about what I learned (and am still learning) working under a different director for one of the first times. But, I’m not sure how much I can talk about it until it’s either released or I get permission. But there’s enough stuff to talk about that it warrants another blog entry. So be on the lookout for that one soon!

In addition to that project, I pulled some VFX work for other friend’s shorts this semester. One of them is Jason Garza’s short, Anthropic, (made for the same class), its a very cool exploration of quantum theory. The VFX in question was a pretty large FumeFX simulation of an explosion and some accompanying debris, although I will probably simulate a better explosion and work on some detail that’s missing in a later version, hopefully.

It’s Been A Hell Of A Semester

 

It has indeed. Any other news I’m forgetting about will probably be written about in the next entry! So that’s it for now. Hope you enjoyed reading about all of this film nonsense, and if you didn’t, well.. I don’t really know. Sorry I guess? Hopefully there was at least something useful in the 2,731 words that comprise this blog post. I’ll be back soon. Thanks for reading, and as always, stay classy.

I think someone somewhere asked where they can download a Blulight Studios desktop background. Get it here!